The Argentina centre-back never even saw a minute of action for the Bianconeri but has developed as a player and a person at Atalanta
Atalanta defender Cristian Romero did something Juventus didn’t expect during last season’s Coppa Italia final: he spoke.
When Federico Chiesa went down in the area just six minutes into the game at the Mapei Stadium, the Old Lady’s players and staff furiously appealed for a penalty.
Romero was livid and made his displeasure known to the referee, to Chiesa, and to his former team-mates.
Juve substitute Leonardo Bonucci wasn’t having any of it. He roared back from the touchline: “Romero, up until 10 months ago, you were mute; don’t act like a phenomenon now!”
Romero, though, remains a humble, unassuming character.
When asked about Bonucci’s comments during a rare interview, the 23-year-old told the Gazzetta dello Sport, “It’s true: I’m someone that speaks very little. Even now… I like, as they say, to do my talking on the field.”
And, in that sense, Romero hasn’t shut up over the past year.
He had been signed by Juventus from Genoa in the summer of 2019 for €26 million (£22m/$31m), after a stellar debut season in Serie A.
However, he was immediately set back to Liguria on loan for the 2019-20 campaign.
Romero again impressed with his performances at the Luigi Ferraris but there was still a feeling in Turin that he wasn’t quite good enough for the Juventus first team.
Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Matthijs de Ligt – “big names”, as Romero called them – were all ahead of him in the pecking order.
So, he asked his agent to find him a new club, telling Ciro Palermo, “I don’t want to stand still and lose a year.”
Several clubs expressed an interest but when Romero heard Atalanta were in the running, there was only one place he wanted to go.
At Genoa, he had shared a dressing room with several players who had served under Gian Piero Gasperini. They told him the revered Atalanta coach would take his game to a whole other level, and so it proved.
Indeed, Romero has admitted that he learned more in just a few months under Gasperini than he did in two years at Genoa.
“Before meeting him, I was a disaster tactically,” Romero told the Gazzetta. “I understood nothing.”
By the end of the season, though, Romero was a key cog in Atalanta’s wonderfully intricate winning machine. And that’s no mean feat.
Atalanta, with their dynamic, fluid forward play and intense high pressing, are hardly renowned for centre-backs, because it’s such an unforgiving role in Gasperini’s system.
Indeed, with the wing-backs encouraged to bomb forward, every member of the three-man back-line is consistently left to fend for himself in one-v-one situations.
It’s a thankless task, but Romero found it “fun” and posted sensational numbers in 2020-21.
In a league still renowned for defensive excellence, he ranked first in his position for recoveries (37), aerials won (113), interceptions (96) and possession won (237).
Stefan de Vrij, Milan Skriniar and Alessandro Bastoni may have played pivotal roles in Inter’s Serie A success, but it was Romero who was rightly named the league’s best defender.
Atalanta’s decision to enact their option to sign him on a permanent transfer for just €16m (£13.6m/$19m) was just as inevitable and, remarkably, the Dea now stand to make an immediate, and colossal, profit on that investment.
The plan had been to begin a third consecutive season in the Champions League with Romero marshalling the backline. However, Atalanta’s entire business model is based upon making the transfer market work for them, meaning every player has his price.
Therefore, they were never going to turn down Tottenham’s €50m (£42.5m/$59m) offer for a player they believe they can once again replace, this time by returning to Turin to sign another hungry young Juve centre-back with something to prove, Merih Demiral, on a loan deal with a €28m (£24m/$33m) option to buy.
From Spurs’ perspective, Romero represents a major investment, the success of which will greatly influence the way in which the fans come to view their newly-installed managing director of football, Fabio Paratici.
The Italian may have signed Romero in his previous role of sporting director at Juventus, but he was also the one who allowed him to leave for Atalanta.
In fairness, though, nobody could have envisaged just how quickly Romero would settle into his new surroundings in Bergamo and Paratici is clearly confident that the Argentine will adapt just as quickly to life in London.
One wouldn’t bet against Romero taking easily to the physicality of Premier League football either. He certainly didn’t need much time to get used to the often attritional nature of international football.
Romero only made his Argentina debut on June 3, in a World Cup qualifier against Chile, and yet just over a month later, there he was in Rio keeping Neymar & Co. at bay in a brutal Copa America final.
Romero only played three games in that historic triumph due to injury but he was still named in the team of the tournament because the Albiceleste didn’t concede a single goal while he was on the field.
He really had become that important, that quickly, to Lionel Scaloni’s side, with the coach describing him as a “spectacular kid”.
He’s hardly the finished article, of course, and will need to address his propensity for conceding fouls – only three players gave away more fouls in Serie A last season.
However, he’s still young, still learning and still improving. Romero didn’t just develop as a player at Atalanta, he also grew as a person.
In a dressing room devoid of superstars, he came out of his shell to such an extent that he became one of the team’s most influential characters.
Can he repeat the feat at Tottenham? After such an incredible 10 months, Romero will be supremely confident of thriving in the Premier League, but he obviously won’t be making any bold predictions in the press.
As ever, he’ll endeavour to let his football do the talking, and it’s a tactic that’s served him well so far.