The darling of Italian football, Serie A’s great entertainers, a European dark horse; call them what you will, but there can be no denying that Atalanta have captured hearts and minds over the past few seasons, and two men are responsible for that more than most: Gian Piero Gasperini and Alejandro Gomez.
Gasperini is the master tactician, transforming the La Dea from Serie A laggards to Champions League regulars, while Papu Gomez is the linchpin, talisman and captain rolled into one, a bundle of creative genius and consummate leadership. He has more assists (37) than any player over each of the last three full Serie A seasons.
Together the duo have catapulted Atalanta to stardom both domestically and in Europe, amassing a 98-goal haul in Serie A last term (22 more than eventual champions Juventus) while also reaching the Champions League quarter-finals in the club’s debut season.
At times that pattern has spilled over to this campaign. The win over Liverpool at Anfield in the Champions League was Atalanta in microcosm, an exhibition of attacking quality where La Dea poured forward in cyclical waves and with cut-throat penetration.
- Age: 32
- Club: Atalanta
- Position: No. 10
- Football Index value: £0.41 (Sell) – £0.54 (Buy)
- Serie A stats at Atalanta 2019/20: | Games played: 36 | Goals scored: 7 (0.22 per 90) | Chances created: 102 (3.21 per 90) | Assists: 16 (0.5 per 90) | Passes: 1,719 (54.17 per 90) | Dribbles completed: 63 (1.99 per 90)
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However, there is trouble in paradise between Bergamo’s beloved double-act, rumours of a dressing room bust-up involving Gomez and Gasperini that unfolded after the former refused to change positions at half-time during the draw with Midtjylland.
Atalanta found themselves a goal down at the interval of their Champions League Group D encounter with the Danish outfit, which prompted Gasperini to tinker with his tactics and look to swap Gomez from his habitual No.10 to the right-hand side, a decision with which the Argentine reportedly did not agree.
In response, the 32-year-old was hauled off in place of Josip Ilicic and subsequently left on the bench in the recent 3-0 win over Fiorentina and 1-1 draw with Juventus (although on that latest occasion he was introduced as a 53rd minute sub).
And while reports suggest the alleged rift was a product of the falling-out against Midtjylland, according to Italian publication La Gazzetta dello Sport that incident was simply the apotheosis of a strained relationship, with tensions bubbling under the surface as early as October.
In the aftermath of Gasperini’s cold shoulder last weekend, and on the day Atalanta discovered their last-16 fate in the Champions League -(a last-16 tie versus Real Madrid) the experienced Argentine posted a not-so-cryptic message on his Instagram account.
Declaring his love for the club and fans, Gomez wrote that he would reveal the “truth about everything” when he leaves the club, which could now be in January as his relationship with Gasperini is seemingly untenable and beyond repair.
He told his followers: “Dear fans, I’m writing to you here because I have no other means to defend myself or talk to you.
“I just want to tell you that, when I leave, you will know the truth about everything.
“You know me well; you know who I am. I love you, your captain.”
Despite this, Gasperini batted away suggestions of a falling-out and downplayed the severity of the situation, telling reporters after Atalanta’s win over Fiorentina that Gomez’s omission was simply a case of managing the impending strain of the congested festive calendar.
He said: “We had played nine Serie A games and six in the Champions League, I think Gomez was the only one to play in all of them. We’ve been more solid recently with this new system and so we are trying other alternatives.
“I consider it essential to keep changing and evolving. I have always been at clubs for quite a long time, at least usually. Around five years for a coach is a long time, so it’s essential to seek other alternatives.”
The Italian coach then refused to entertain the notion that Atalanta will sanction the sale of Gomez next month, stating that ‘this is not the case’, but ultimately conceding that he does not “know how the situation will be resolved”.
He added: “I think Gomez has been our most important player over these five years, I said it many times, he was hardly ever out of the team. There are some situations…
“For example, after two years, Papu’s role was difficult in some games for the team to handle, because the opponents can change and adapt to neutralise you.
“At the basis of everything, we need trust and being open to listening. I don’t know how the situation will be resolved. It’s disappointing for Josip Ilicic, as he got dragged into this whole situation in the media and had nothing to do with it.”
Where next for Gomez if he leaves?
Should Gomez push for an Atalanta exit in the winter window there will be no shortage of suitors, despite the playmaker turning 33 in February. There are suggestions that Gomez has no desire to leave Europe, which would make moves to the Chinese Super League and the Middle East out of the question.
- PSG: With the 2021 Copa America just around the corner, Gomez will be wary of derailing his career at such a crucial juncture. According to Goal, Paris could be one destination for Gomez after contact was made between the player and compatriot Angel Di Maria. With Neymar recently stretchered off in the defeat to Lyon, Thomas Tuchel could be in need of an injection of creativity, and Gomez would bring that in bundles.
- AC Milan: Gomez knows the San Siro well, with Atalanta playing their Champions League matches at the iconic venue last season, and he could be the perfect January signing for the Rossoneri, as they look to challenge for the scudetto this term. Stefano Pioli plays with a No.10 in his 4-2-3-1 so Gomez would fit in perfectly, but Hakan Calhanoglu has been imperious this term and would not be supplanted easily, even for Gomez. However, Calhanoglu, too, has been linked with a move to Manchester United.
- Inter Milan: With suggestions that Gomez wants to stay close to home, another possible alternative is Inter. According to Corriere della Sera, the Nerazzurri are favourites for his signature and could offer Christian Eriksen in a six-month swap deal. The Dane has struggled in Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2, which has no home for a recognised No. 10, while Gasperini’s system revolves around a trequartista. Eriksen is expected to be priced out of a return to the Premier League, so may find this six-month swap a short-term reprieve to his Inter nightmare.
- Arsenal: This would be more of a wildcard move, but it’s clear Mikel Arteta is in dire need of a creative adrenaline shot, and the prospect of Gomez threading balls through to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the stuff of fantasy. It’s clear the Gunners need to go to work next month to save their season, and they should go all out for Gomez, even if they pay over the odds for a player who will soon turn 33. Future planning is all well and good, but Arsenal need answers now, chiefly: how will Aubameyang end his dry spell? How about bringing in a player who provided 15+ assists in Serie A last season, the first player to do so in the 21st century. Problem solved?