SPORT

The Iceman Cometh

The latest talent unearthed and developed by Atalanta could well be Swiss international midfielder Remo ‘Iceman’ Freuler, explains Wayne Girard.

The dense fog rests under the Citta Alta of Bergamo as if the Greek huntress, Atalanta herself, laid a blanket over the valley to shelter her inhabitants.

Just two kilometres to the east, the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia looms in the distance. Its club has fostered some of Italy’s finest youth for the last generations, and as these young players perpetually move on to finer pastures, Atalanta seems to have found the withstanding recipe for Plusvalenza – or buying players cheaply based on scouting ability, and then selling them for high value.

One such example of the Nerazzurri overcoming these squad transitions was the signing of Remo Freuler in the winter of 2016. A late-blooming acquisition at 23 years of age, the central midfielder spent his youth and the first several years of his professional career bouncing between Zurich-based sides FC Hinwil, Grasshopper, and FC Winterthur, where he became an important squad player that helped FCW climb from fighting to survival to reaching fourth place.

Earning a transfer to FC Luzern in the top flight, Freuler established himself as one of Switzerland’s top young players, scoring seven goals and creating five assists in his second season with the Luminaries. Making a transverse journey south over the Alps, he signed for Atalanta at a €2m purchase price in January 2016.

While in Switzerland he held a more advanced role, manager Gian Piero Gasperini saw his skill set a bit differently. He was calmer than most other midfielders on the ball, someone who could see the play before it happened. Such player who can dictate tempo and play the long ball out of the back is referred to as a regista in Italy, or director.

Although a regista’s typical responsibilities are just to connect to the defence and spread the ball throughout the attack, Freuler’s endurance and tenacity allows him to be even more versatile. This season, he’s been fundamental to his side’s push for European football.

If one thing is guaranteed in calcio, it’s that the Flying Donkeys will defend – but on October 21, Freuler quickly broke down their defensive stronghold. Just before the half hour mark, he received the ball from the halfway line and played a long ball to Josip Ilicic to the top of the opposition’s box. It was the midfielder’s vision and precision that placed the ball in the threatening area, and Marten De Roon converted.

Just moments later, he opened play with quick-thinking-passing, and the Slovenian’s incredible strike meant two assists for the Swiss player. He then exposed the Chievo defence once again, forcing a dangerous tackle and subsequent red card. Freuler would notch one more assist after an interception to lead the Orobici home with a 1-5 win.

Freuler’s strong form run through November came at a rough time for his team. With back-to-back losses against Empoli and Napoli, his team seemed to have lost their cutting edge, even as he completed an 84% pass completion against the Partenopei.

It was a truly harsh winter in northern Italy as the region faced numerous days in subzero cold. While the pitch froze though, Freuler’s play sizzled, becoming a key player for Atalanta withnine successive starts, of which Atalanta earned six victories – including a 3-0 thumping of Juventus in the Coppa Italia and 6-2 over Sassuolo in Serie A. The “Iceman” had been true to his name in his calmness and composure.

A trickier test came in mid-February against AC Milan, with Atalanta’s faithful Curva Nord and their Bandieru tifo of the Greek huntress spurring them on.Freuler and his teammates initiated pressure, and Ilicic turned the entire Rossoneri defence to find Freuler on the edge of the box. His shot had just enough power to beat the Milan keeper. An incredible team move, converted by a player who always seemed to find himself in the right spot at the right time.

The bitterly cold match on February 16 was a tale of two halves though, as Gennaro Gattuso’s team scored three unanswered goals. Another test was just around the corner against Fiorentina, as the two sides were now just two points apart in the table.

On the match day that would celebrate Davide Astori’s life, the sun had set in a beautiful purple and orange, slumbering into a glowing red over the hills. As if it had been written in the stars, as Ilicic – Astori’s former teammate who was visibly distraught during the memorial applause at the 13th minute – scored the goal to draw level. The play began with Freuler once again, who recognized the Viola’s lack of concentration.

Just six minutes later, his recovery and initiation of the attack fedPapu Gomez, who scored a sensational brace. In all, the Swiss midfielder won four tackles and gained 77 touches on the night – second most on the field, just behind Gomez. Ever-present, always reading the opposition, and quintessentially calm.

In Atalanta’s tutelage of young players, Freuler has grown to become a mature impact player for his side, and a fundamental component to Gasperini’s tactics.

As the huntress’ fog parts in the seasons’ change, she will find it evermore difficult to keep Freuler as the summer market looms on the horizon.

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