Breaking into Europe’s footballing elite – easier than it may seem?


When the footballing calendar kicked off back in August, many people sat down and prepared themselves for another 10 months of non-stop action. Would Liverpool finally usurp Manchester City and claim their first title in 30 years? Would Conte be able to spark a revival in Inter Milan and finally challenge the dominant Juventus in Serie A? Could Zidane rally his Madrid team and reclaim European dominance? All these questions and excitement brewed as fans waited to see what would unfold. You would be far-flung to find a football supporter who predicted an abrupt stop to the worldwide footballing season in March as a global pandemic swept across the globe.

Yet, that is where we find ourselves. At the time of writing, all major leagues are suspended indefinitely, with the prospect of football returning a distant hope. Some of the last football to take place was midweek European football. On Tuesday 10 March, a rampant RB Leipzig brushed past last year’s runners-up, Tottenham Hotspur, and, in an empty stadium in Valencia, four goals from Josip Iličić saw Atalanta smash Valencia 8-4 on aggregate. The unfortunate set of circumstances that have transpired in the last few days means it is unlikely that these two teams will get to continue their journey in the competition, for this year at least. However, for two teams that a few years ago saw Europe as but a fleeting fantasy, this season has nevertheless seen them affirm their position amongst Europe’s elite footballing institutions. 

Their path to such continental heights has not been one of good fortune and luck, but rather one of clever recruitment, tactical consistency and wise managerial appointments. As old giants around Europe such as Manchester United and AC Milan struggle to reclaim their former glory days, smaller clubs in these very leagues are beginning to knock on the door of Europe’s backward footballing establishment, and RB Leipzig and Atalanta represent merely the first of a cohort of burgeoning talent from around Europe. 

For RB Leipzig, the journey began in 2013/14, when they entered the German third division for the first time. Whilst Leipzig were, and still are, fortunate to have the backing of Red Bull, this is not to suggest that they have merely spent their way to the top. And even when they have spent, their recruitment has been smart. Their marquee signings in the 13/14 and 14/15 season included Yussuf Poulsen, Diego Demme, Emil Forsberg and Marcel Sabitzer. All four players have played for the team this season, with the latter two combining to score all three goals in their second leg against Spurs last week. 

Upon reaching the Bundesliga in 2016, the club appointed Ralph Hasenhuttl, the current Southampton manager, and Naby Keita, Timo Werner and Dayot Upamecano represented marquee signings, the latter two of which are now key cogs in the current first XI four years later, whilst Keita made a record move to Liverpool for £75,000,000. The Hasenhuttl regime also saw the implementation of a clear tactical philosophy on the pitch, as a 4-2-2-2 formation built on high-pressing, attacking football established Leipzig as a top team in the division. When Hasenhuttl departed in 2018, young German managerial upstart Julian Nagelsmann was signed for the following season. 

In Nagelsmann’s first season so far, he has continued the attacking philosophy set in stone by his predecessors. The tactical system set in place has brought the best out of the players at his disposal. Werner has become one of the most prolific strikers in Europe, whilst players like Angelino, Nkunku and Schick have found key role in a youthful side despite being discarded by other top European teams (Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain and Roma respectively).

This progression was most evident in their Champions League tie against Spurs. Whilst Leipzig have cultivated an attacking brand of football over the last few years, Spurs have somewhat regressed in this regard with their appointment of Mourinho, who represents a sharp turn from the tactical philosophy implemented by Pochettino. Whilst it was a depleted Spurs squad on show, the tie saw one team with a system and recruitment policy to match outclassing a team who are struggling to discover a coherent tactical approach and instead resorting to short-termism and risky managerial appointments without a clear plan. 

For Atalanta, their journey has not been a rise up the divisions, but rather a smart managerial appointment which has been suitably backed with crude recruitments. Gian Piero Gasperini arrived at the start of the 2016/17 season, with Atalanta having finished 13th the season before. Playing a daring, attacking 3-4-2-1 system, Gasperini has made Atalanta one of the most entertaining outfits in Serie A in little over three seasons, taking the team from mid-table mediocrity to Champions League dark horses. 

Similarly to Leipzig, the shrewd recruitment system implemented has allowed them to pick off the misfits of other top European teams and form an exciting team excelling under a clearly defined tactical philosophy. Duvan Zapata was signed from Sampdoria for £11,000,000, whilst the aforementioned Iličić left Fiorentina for merely £5,000,000, with the latter scoring four goals against Valencia in the second leg, and both now forming part of the deadliest front three in Serie A alongside Alejandro Gomez. Marten de Roon was picked off from relegated Middlesbrough in 2017 but now forms part of a solid central midfield duo alongside Mario Pašalić, who Atalanta signed from Chelsea for £15,000,000. 

However, unlike RB Leipzig, Atalanta have not had the backing of a global brand yet still manage to attract top talent whilst operating on a wage bill the same size as English second division team Reading, who sit in 14th place. Yet their smart recruitment, which works in tandem with their attacking philosophy, has allowed them to far outperform their supposed financial capabilities. This season alone, Atalanta have scored seven  goals against three teams in the league and their xG differential (xG minus xG allowed) of 30.2 is first and far superior to anyone else with Lazio in second with 18.4. In the Champions League, their performances against Valencia were typical of their performances throughout the whole of their domestic campaign, and although it may not go any further due to Covid-19, it is clear that Atalanta are now a player on the continental football scene. 

Whilst Atalanta and RB Leipzig represent the first clubs to break into the traditional footballing elite, they are by no means the last. As data analytics emerges as an ever-growing factor in player recruitment, the role of player scouting and the monopoly that the traditional big clubs had over the best players is slowly withering away and, in turn, welcomes a new cohort of clubs who are hungry and keen to break into Europe’s elite. Wolves have gone from the Championship two seasons ago to a place in the Europa League quarter-final and the cusp of Champions League qualification. Sheffield United have done the same in a shorter period. In Spain, Getafe, under José Bordalás and his unique approach, sit fifth in La Liga and recently knocked out Ajax in the Europa League. Many others sit ready and waiting, as they combine smart recruitment with consistent tactical philosophies and matching managerial appointments. For the big clubs clinging on to their elite status, it is time to embrace these changes or risk being hunted down by these emerging clubs hungry for blood. 

Image: PercyGermany via Flickr and Creative Commons

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