Few players have been more impressive than Bryan Cristante in the North Italian clubs this season. No Inter, Milan or hardly even Juventus midfielders have been better than the Atalanta man, who has scored 11 goals in all competitions and also made his Italian national team debut. Cristante is only on loan in Bergamo however with Portuguese giants Benfica owning him. Going into the summer, Cristante will be very sought after among Italy’s bigger clubs. Here we take a look at what this somewhat unique midfielder brings.
Cristante came through the AC Milan academy and made his debut in the first team in the Champions League against Viktoria Plzen in 2011, aged only 16, making him Milan’s youngest ever Champions League player. His Serie A debut waited a further two years and he made three appearances in Serie A before being sold to Benfica on transfer deadline day in September 2014. His first season in Lisbon saw him struggle for game time, making only five appearances and the then 21-year-old went back on loan to Italy and Palermo for the second half of the 2015-16 season. In the summer of 2016 he made another loan move to the Italian peninsula, this time joining Pescara where he made sixteen appearances in the first half of the season. Atalanta then pulled off a masterstroke by bringing Cristante to Bergamo for the second half of the season as a replacement for the departing Roberto Gagliardini. Cristante impressed, scored three goals from midfield, and returned on loan in July 2017 for a full season with Gian Piero Gasperini’s side. Cristante has been terrific this campaign, scoring eight times in Serie A and a further three in the Europa League.
Normally, Cristante has played behind the strikers in Gasperini’s fluid system. The attacking shape usually changes between 3-4-2-1 with Cristante as the right-sided attacking midfielder or 3-4-1-2 with Cristante as the 10 behind two strikers. Atalanta’s shape always differ defensively as Gasperini man-marks every opposition player and therefore adapts his side to the shape of the opposition. This has led to Cristante also playing in a two-man central midfield at times, while also appearing at the right of a midfield three against Juventus last week. His skill set sees him capable of playing in all these positions and he brings different qualities in different roles while some remain constant. Basically, Cristante is a classic box-to-box midfielder who can run all day and break up play for the opposition. Cristante is also supremely talented in terms of timing his runs into the penalty area, which has been key behind his goal scoring return. Our lead analyst Lee labelled him similar to Frank Lampard in this regard, which is a fair comparison in terms of attacking space in the box.
Defensively, Cristante contributes hugely to Atalanta’s defensive style. They are very aggressive and Cristante fits perfectly with his energy and intensive pressing whether in midfield or further up the pitch. He’s also physically strong, highlighted by the 2.8 aerial duels he wins on average in each game. He also averages 1.9 tackles per game and 0.7 interceptions. In this piece though, I’ll take a closer look at his attacking contribution.
Intelligent runs into the box
The main quality that stands out is, as mentioned, his remarkable quality of timing his runs into the box. Cristante has showed stunning ability in the aerial game, where he often comes from behind to attack crosses, while also excelling at identifying spaces to run into and finish along the ground.
In the example below, Cristante attacks the space in-between Juventus’ centre-backs to head home a stunning goal from Alejandro Gomez’ cross.
And in this example below, Cristante pops up behind Sampdoria’s ball-far centre-back in the space in front of the left-back to score a header and give Atalanta the lead.
Cristante also scored in both of Atalanta’s demolitions of Everton in the Europa League and highlighted his dynamism and technical excellence in this goal below. Cristante receives a pass from Andrea Petagna and takes a sublime first touch to get beyond the Everton defender and finish coolly.
And in the away leg Cristante opened the scoring when he sprinted into the penalty area to make himself available for a cutback which he receives and then scores.
This ability to identify space and then move into it highlights both Cristante’s intelligence and dynamism and what he brings to the side in the final third in terms of providing the cutting edge to attacks.
As you’d expect from an Italian midfielder, Cristante is also good in possession. By no means is he a playmaker, but he provides good passing ability over both long and short distances as well as creativity in the final third. In the example below, Cristante switches the play with a raking cross-field pass to a teammate on the left flank.
Cristante’s creativity is highlighted below as he beats his defender to turn back and taking him out of the game before dropping a left-footed lobbed pass towards the back post to create a huge chance to score.
Statistically, Cristante averages 41 passes a game which highlights the very direct style of Atalanta who rarely dominate possession in games. His pass completion is 79% and he averages 1.11 key passes per game. These stats highlight his position as an attacking midfielder with the job of creating rather than playing safe. With the passing ability Cristante has he fulfils his role well, although he’s in no way a playmaker for Gasperini’s side.
Cristante’s intelligence and creativity also shines through in the way he sometimes uses his superb technique to beat opponents. The image below is a prime example. Cristante receives a pass and recognises the pressing defender coming towards him. He then simply flicks the ball around one side of the defender while running around the defender on the other to then pick up the ball behind the defender and attack the remains of the defence.
Bryan Cristante has had a stunning season for Atalanta and has impressed in defence but mostly in attack with a tally of eleven goals. The biggest clubs in Italy are monitoring his progress in Bergamo and the 23-year-old won’t be short of suitors in the summer. It remains to be seen if Benfica decides they want to keep the Italian international in Lisbon. For the sake of Italian football I hope he remains in Serie A as he would suit clubs like Inter, Lazio and Roma perfectly. It will be interesting to see where this very talented, technical, intelligent and physical midfielder ends up. In many ways he’s very different from Italian midfielders given his physicality, which is what makes him fit in so well at Gasperini’s ultra-energetic Atalanta. Now some Serie A clubs needs to make sure he stays on the peninsula.
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All stats are collected from Squawka.com and whoscored.com as of 20 March 2018.