Atalanta are resolutely focused on the future. Almost everything they do is geared towards their own sustainability. One of their policies is to give a team shirt to every baby born in Bergamo, the city the club is based in. They also take great pride in bringing through their own talent, having produced countless Italy internationals over the past four decades.
The latest player to graduate from their renowned academy is Musa Barrow, a 19-year-old who left his native Gambia in the summer of 2016 to join the club. Having made his debut in January this year, the forward has established himself as a serious contender for a starting berth in Gian Piero Gasperini’s attack.
In doing so, Barrow has extended an incredibly long list of individuals to have come through the ranks during the last two seasons under Gasperini’s tutelage. Last term, breakthroughs were made by four players – Mattia Caldara, Andrea Conti, Roberto Gagliardini and Franck Kessié. The former is the only one that remains, though he will soon join Juventus; the other three have already moved on to AC Milan and Inter.
Barrow made a positive start to life in Italy last season, adjusting quickly to a new environment. He scored nine goals in 12 outings for the Primavera (youth team) and also hit four goals in five appearances to help the club to the quarter-finals of the Viareggio Cup.
This season, however, he has reached another echelon.
In 20 appearances at Primavera level – including league and cup – he has found the net a remarkable 26 times. On top of that, he has set up seven goals for others, meaning that on average he has had a direct hand in 1.65 goals per game. His form was virtually impossible to ignore, and Gasperini gave the youngster his first-team debut in a Coppa Italia clash with Juventus three months ago.
Speaking about the opportunity, Barrow couldn’t contain his delight. “It's a dream come true, I'm so happy,” he said after the match. “I've met very strong players that I had only seen on TV…I immediately found [Giorgio] Chiellini in tight marking, but the biggest thrill was seeing from near players like [Gonzalo] Higuaín, [Paulo] Dybala, [Gianluigi] Buffon.”
Wearing the No.99 shirt, Barrow’s first tangible impact at senior level was rather innocuous. Coming on late against Sampdoria, he leapt high to nod down a free kick for Rafael Toloi to scramble home from close range, though his assist ultimately meant nothing as Atalanta lost 2-1.
His second impact was far more important. Away to Serie A’s bottom club, Benevento, he scored Atalanta’s second with a beautifully calm finish to essentially wrap up all three points. The goal itself perfectly encapsulated the team’s defensive approach – a goal kick from Benevento led to the ball receiver being hassled out of possession by the man-oriented pressing from behind of Marten de Roon, who in turn fed Barrow. The Gambian then curled his shot beyond the opposition goalkeeper.
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If his maiden strike for Atalanta showcased his precision, his second evidenced his athleticism. An aimless long ball from Toloi was flicked on beyond the Genoa back line. Barrow reacted quickly, racing beyond a defender before poking home from a tight angle.
The forward’s best all-round performance came against Torino in April, however. While he did not score in the 2-1 win, he did play a hugely influential role in his team’s opener. Winning the ball on the edge of the opposition penalty area, he laid off to Bryan Cristante and continued his run. Receiving a return pass, he then chipped a cross to the far post for Remo Freuler to head home.
When he first arrived at Atlanta, Barrow was considered to be more of a winger or trequartista – someone who could play off a striker, but was unlikely to lead the line. However, in each of this three starts at senior level, he has operated as the lone frontman ahead of an inside forward duet of Alejandro Gómez and Cristante. He looks more than comfortable in the role.
Why he's one to watch
Fast, direct and unafraid to shoot, he has a knack for finding space for himself in and around the opposition 18-yard box. He also works hard off the ball to give his teammates an option. Given these increasingly prevalent attributes, it should come as no surprise that he takes inspiration from one of Serie A’s finest hitmen.
Ahead of his first start, against Inter, he said: “[Mauro] Icardi, without a doubt, is the player I most fear for Saturday's challenge. Maybe [he does] not touch the ball for a while and when you least expect it, [he scores] a goal.”
The quality and consistency of Icardi’s finishing means his work in pressing and creating space offensively often goes unnoticed. Likewise, it’s easy to miss out on some of Barrow’s subtle movements. However, those with a keen eye for young talent are already picking up on his ability. His name has been mentioned among potential Chelsea transfer targets, while Juventus, Inter and Borussia Dortmund are also said to be monitoring him.
Barrow is starting to make noise at Atalanta, but his next challenge will be to assert himself as his team’s first-choice line-leader, ahead of the bustling Andrea Petagna and Andreas Cornelius. With a trusting coach in Gasperini, the 19-year-old could soon jump that particular hurdle.