COMMENT By Solace Chukwu
On a certain level, everyone wants to have their departure mourned. The volume of tears shed at the prospect or in the aftermath of parting is often an apt measure of success or failure. It is deeply egotistical, borderline narcissistic, but it is undeniably human.
Football, however, does not afford the luxury to bemoan. It is a relentless machine that never stops churning; longing is taken for weakness and crushed in its cold, metal jaws, and so teams can hardly afford to be too distraught at the prospect of players departing: not when it is imperative, almost immediately, to replace them.
Atalanta, one of Italy’s most admirable teams, have wrought minor miracles in Serie A over the last couple of seasons, smelting together a vibrant youth system, shrewd transfer activity and a cunning manager. The result is a policy that sees them unafraid to lose players—indeed, they actively welcome it.
It is a model that has helped them punch well above their weight, and La Dea have somehow managed to remain competitive, and arguably even get better through the departures. On Saturday, they hosted AC Milan, a place above them in the league table and sporting an Atalanta alumnus in midfield.
It was at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri D’Italia that Franck Kessie was educated, and began to catch the eye.
After earning promotion to the first team in the 2016/17 season, the then 19-year-old quickly built a reputation as a hard-running, energetic midfield dynamo, capable of storming forward from midfield. He was critical to Atalanta’s high-pressure style, contributing both in attack and defensively.
Six goals and four assists in 30 league games from a deep starting position saw interest in him immediately swell, and Milan would eventually win the battle for his services, snapping him up in 2017, only a year after his first-team debut for Atalanta.
A club of that stature was clearly a step-up for Kessie, but he had been unfazed by his youth and relative inexperience. The progression felt natural.
On their part, Gianpiero Gasperini’s side barely flinched, immediately acquiring Marten De Roon from relegated Premier League side Middlesbrough as a replacement. Just in case, for a second, there might have existed the notion he might be irreplaceable!
However, the manner in which the game panned out on Saturday night, with Milan running out 3-1 winners, handily encapsulated just where both teams are, and showed that, remarkably, both parties still miss each other.
While the numbers seem to suggest that the Ivory Coast international has largely maintained the same output in his season and a half at San Siro, his time at Milan has seen the club mired in managerial uncertainty.
Signed under Vincenzo Montella, he has been required to come to grips with the inchoate style of Gennaro Gattuso who, up until the end of the 2019 January transfer window, looked to have his future in the balance. By contrast, Atalanta have maintained a level of stability that has seen the team further assimilate Gasperini’s teachings.
That lack of certainty has made it difficult for Kessie to build a proper rhythm.
He has, over the course of 18 months, been tasked with playing with a defensive skew, as well as an attacking one from time to time. While the adaptability of his skill-set makes this a possibility, it has had the unintended effect of making him a bit of a midfield handyman.
The sense persists that Milan have yet to see the true Kessie, or extract the same effectiveness from him.
Atalanta have continued to defy expectations even shorn of their midfield dynamo. However, in the period since, they have curiously slipped behind the Rossoneri, whereas they had finished nine points ahead in Kessie’s final season.
This term, it is very much a case of ‘pass Milan, collect UCL windfall’, as Milan currently occupy the fourth and final Champions League spot.
Yet it seems it might once again prove a step too far.
That much was clear on Kessie’s old stomping ground on Saturday, even as the midfielder, with rumours of transfer interest from Tottenham Hotspur swirling, was atypically understated in his performance on the night.
By the same token, Atalanta looked somewhat flustered under the gaze of a former flame and De Roon, in particular, lacked his usual effervescence, winning only four of 11 duels. La Dea, usually so strong at home against the big sides (they have trounced visiting Juventus and Inter this term), acquiesced rather meekly.
It would appear that, for all the water that has gone under the bridge, Atalanta and Kessie are not quite over each other just yet.