Atalanta are fast becoming many football fans’ second team. The Serie A side’s gung-ho approach has seen them win over the hearts of legions of spectators, notching a staggering 77 goals already this campaign – 25 more than leaders Juventus.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s side took part in another thriller on Wednesday night as they came from 2-0 down to snatch a late winner in a 3-2 win over Scudetto-chasing Lazio. The night got off to the worst possible start for Le Dea, with Marten de Roon entering the blooper-reel archives after comically slicing the ball into his own net with just five minutes on the clock.
The midfielder took to Twitter after the game to mock his hilarious blunder, and it’s fair to say he’s banked enough credit from the Atalanta fans this season to be permitted a momentary lapse.
De Roon has been a key component in the club’s dramatic rise over the past few seasons, with Atalanta finishing a club-record third in Serie A last campaign - reaching the Champions League quarter-final stage this season (with the last eight draw still to come) and looking set to book their place in next season’s edition of the competition.
Few could have foreseen De Roon playing such a vital role in a Champions League side after he spent a year in England with Middlesbrough back in 2016/17. Boro were relegated having spent just one season back in the top flight, mustering a measly 27 goals in their 38 games.
De Roon arrived on Teesside as one of the club’s marquee signings following their promotion, with many Boro fans pinning their hopes of survival on the midfield-man’s shoulders. So where did it all go wrong?
Having been signed as a combative midfielder renowned for his ability to break up play, De Roon, unfortunately, became a victim of his own success in a Middlesbrough side utterly bereft of creativity and pace.
The club made a whole host of signings the summer before they embarked on their first Premier League appearance since 2009. Then-Boro boss Aitor Karanka had already forged a solid defensive foundation - though he knew creativity would be key to the club’s survival. In came Adama Traore, Viktor Fischer, Patrick Bamford and Rudy Gestede; though none of them cut the mustard.
When the club’s only real creative spark, Gastón Ramírez, headed for pastures new in January, Karanka turned to the only man he thought good enough to provide Álvaro Negredo with the service to fire Boro to another season in England’s top flight. That man was De Roon.
Not only were the club pinning their hopes of survival on a holding midfielder somehow producing enough assists to steer them clear of the relegation zone, they knew De Roon was too solid defensively to let him neglect his duties in front of the back four.
Instead they asked the Netherlands international to perform at both ends of the field, attempting to transform him into a box-to-box midfielder.
The move ultimately ended in disaster. De Roon had the energy, the commitment, the drive and the selfless attitude to do exactly what had been asked of him, though the immense amount of running he was being asked to do each game effectively saw him looking like a headless chicken chasing the ball around all game.
That being said, the class of the man was still apparent. Only former Manchester City man Negredo bagged more goals than De Roon in the league. There was no obvious resentment from the midfield man as he was played out of position; a move which essentially ruined his first - and possibly only - crack at the Premier League.
Since his move back to Atalanta, the midfielder as proved his class when played in his natural position. Energetic, combative and a solid ballplayer, De Roon’s failure in England has nothing to do with his ability; Boro quite possibly had a diamond on their hands and they chose to waste it.