It was not the romp Bianconeri fans were hoping for and maybe expected given Genoa’s struggles and position in the standings, but the lads finally managed to win two matches in a row in Serie A too and are beginning to find some consistency, on top of a clear identity. Some problems still need to be cleaned up against the minnows, as the back-line continues to give up cheap goals and the volume of chances created does not match the overwhelming level of possession, but that will be a matter for another day given that a more difficult fixture is on the docket for the midweek round and will present a diverse set of challenges.
The best news coming out of the Genoa tilt was that Paulo Dybala finally snapped out of his funk with one of his customary dazzling goals. However, the follow-up centered on the extension was highly unnecessary as both him and president Andrea Agnelli could have avoided their remarks. The negotiation needs to have a positive outcome before the summer, but they could have taken a moment to just enjoy the finally positive moment. The chairman was a little harsh, but he was correct to point out that La Joya has not really been a different-maker for months now, so he will have to re-earn the hefty contract he has in mind on the pitch, as normal. One could argue that he has not been an indispensable player for a while now.
Hopefully the uncertainty will not wear on him and he will be able not only to focus, but to thrive on the pitch. Andrea Pirlo unleashed his best trident in the final portion of Sunday’s match and, this year more than ever, the tactic is well suited to support having three strikers together with minimal adjustments across the formation. It maybe just needs having Alex Sandro out wide and the grittier pair of midfielders for it to be feasible.
The Brazilian international got the nod as third centre-back in a game where it was fine to test it out, but the results were poor as he got caught out of position on the goal. He can obviously improve over time, but he is currently not as polished as Danilo defensively and it does not bode well if it did not work out against Genoa, which rarely attacked. It is better to keep him on flank and he has been quite good in the final third so far. The latest buzz suggests that he is in contention with Federico Chiesa to play in that role. Alvaro Morata is poised to make the XI and Aaron Ramsey might do the same after a day off, but it can not be excluded that the gaffer will go again with a battleship midfield, with Weston McKennie slightly advanced again and two among Arthur, Adrien Rabiot and Rodrigo Bentancur as pivots. Giorgio Chiellni has recovered from a thigh injury.
3-4-1-2 Szczesny; De Ligt, Bonucci, Danilo; Cuadrado, Arhur, McKennie, Sandro; Ramsey; Morata, Ronaldo.
Atalanta have not been as explosive team as in the past and there could be multiple reasons behind it. The most glaring one is that, while they have tightened it up a little in the back, their attack is not producing as much as last season. Duvan Zapata has looked spent for few matches in a row, Josip Ilicic has been in a well-documented funk and also Alejandro Gomez has not been in a tip-top shape for a while, which spells trouble for all the other attackers given his importance playmaking-wise and has recently started feuding with Gian Piero Gasperini, a baffling situation that might have a shocking finale in the near future.
They have prioritized Champions League in the early part of the season and they got the job done there in a challenging group. That has taken some toll in domestic play, even though for the most part they have gone with their best lineup because their coach, after initially trying some heavy rotations, stuck to his guns when they commenced slipping in the standings.
The rift between the manager and their star players has added to their problems and it is surely no longer the ‘happy island’ they have been in the past couple of campaigns. It could be simply growing pains as it is quite clear that they entered a new echelon with what they achieved over the last two years and there are some inevitable problems that come with it, starting with some added scrutiny and loftier objectives, which can create some tensions.
Despite all that, it would see surprising to see them rip off a lengthy run now that Champions League will not be a factor and they were prone to that in the past. However, they need a pair of major contributors to get going for their front-line to be effective starting with the top trio. Ruslan Malinovskyi and Robin Gosens resurfaced versus Fiorentina and, if the situation involving Papu is no longer salvageable, Malinovskyi, Aleksey Miranchuk and Matteo Pessina will slide into a bigger role and they will have recalibrate their design, given that Gomez is a massive reference point and their main source of offense.
They have had some hits and misses in their reinforcement campaign: Cristian Romero has been a home run, which fuels the doubts about Juventus letting him go, Sam Lammers and Miranchuk have done okay whenever fielded but have yet to fully win the trust of the coach, while Johan Mojica, Cristiano Piccini and Fabio Depaoli have not been able to position themselves as decent alternatives for their starting wing-backs Hans Hateboer and Gosens. The fact that Mario Pasalic had to miss time has left them short-handed in the midfield and the minutes have piled up for Remo Freuler and Marten De Roon.
Pessina is not exactly a newcomer, but he stayed after the loan spell at Verona and he is on the rise recently, featuring mainly as tactical no.10. He has incredible smarts and motor and already proved with the Scaligeri that he can be a not-so-sneaky weapon in the box too. He can surely be a factor in this kind of match-ups, where he can help the midfield and press more than your standard trequartista, but he is still somebody defenses need to pay attention to.
While it is probably a good time to catch them, the previously brilliant squad is probably still underneath the surface, ready to come bust out as they have done versus Liverpool and Fiorentina, even if they lacked continuity. Their tempo is no longer suffocating as in their heyday, but it is still above average and their intensity will have to be matched. Their back-line has improved but their defensive style is still pretty risky and full of one-on-one duels that can be exploited. Even if in not peak form, it would be a mistake to underestimate the array of weapons they have at their disposal.
3-4-2-1: Gollini; Toloi, Romero, Djmsiti; Hateboer, De Roon, Freuler, Gosens; Pessina, Gomez; Zapata.
Ilicic (illness), Pasalic (groin), Caldara (knee).