A week ago, Atalanta fans were delighted to see Remo Freuler scoring an absolutely majestic goal for Switzerland in the 1-1 draw against Spain in the Nations League.
Finally, their midfielder was getting international acclaim, especially taking into account that he also scored in a 3-3 draw against Germany in October.
But they were even happier when Freuler was booked later in the game, thus getting suspended from the subsequent fixture against Ukraine and returning to Bergamo ahead of schedule. The coach Gian Piero Gasperini rested his protege for the Serie A match at Spezia on Saturday, meaning Freuler will be fresh and full of energy when Atalanta visit Liverpool in the Champions League on Wednesday.
He will arrive at Anfield with a strong case for being Europe’s most underrated footballer.
Freuler is so crucial to Gasperini’s system that he has only missed 19 league matches since the coach took over in the summer of 2016 – most of them due to suspensions and minor injuries.
The 28-year-old is a virtual ever-present, making the whole team tick, while very rarely getting any praise. He is one of the most influential, efficient and versatile central midfielders in Europe – but also one who is rarely talked about.
“Remo isn’t especially athletic, but he is the brains of Atalanta. He covers everyone, recovers balls, tackles, and – most importantly – builds play from behind. His pass completion ratio is very high. He is the conductor of the orchestra,” Il Giorno correspondent Fabrizio Carcano tells BBC Sport.
Such a rise was unthinkable when Freuler was signed for just 2m euros (£1.78m) from Swiss side Luzern in January 2016.
“Remo arrived from an unfashionable league, and wasn’t a national team player yet, while Atalanta themselves were relegation strugglers at the time. I never expected him to experience such a growth, but neither could it be expected from the entire team,” Tuttosport journalist Giordano Signorelli explains.
Gasperini is the man to thank for this fairytale. Freuler struggled to impress in his first months in Italy under the guidance of Edy Reja, but the new mentor enabled him and numerous team-mates to fulfil their potential.
“Gasperini likes players who listen and apply themselves, and Freuler is a true professional. He has become fundamental in midfield, alongside Marten de Roon. He has a great spirit of sacrifice, is strong physically, but also sound technically and possesses a good shot,” Signorelli adds.
Other players who have flourished under Gasperini tend to steal the headlines – especially forwards Papu Gomez and Josip Ilicic, whose flair, dribbling and passing range catch the eye. They helped Atalanta become a well-oiled attacking machine who play a hugely exciting brand of football. Suddenly, the team weren’t fighting for their lives at the bottom, but rather aiming for the very top, becoming regulars in European competition.
They finished fourth in 2017 and seventh in 2018, qualifying for the Europa League on both occasions. They then climbed to third in 2019, reached the Champions League for the first time and went all the way to the quarter-finals, before marginally and dramatically losing to Paris St-Germain.
They also flirted with the title race in Serie A, eventually finishing third again, five points behind Juventus – and getting into the Champions League once more.
Naturally, Freuler has been a certain starter throughout that European adventure, and has gradually managed to force his way into the national team.
It was a long journey for a player who failed at Grasshopper Zurich initially, and was nearly discarded even at tiny second division Winterthur. Eventually, the midfielder became a solid performer at Luzern, but was rarely noticed by pundits. “People don’t usually pay attention to those who don’t play for Basel or Young Boys”, says David Lemos, RTS Swiss national team commentator.
His willingness to work hard and develop paid off, however. Freuler has always been eager to do everything for the team, once even asking to play in goal for Winterthur in an under-18 tournament when the keeper was sent off.
Atalanta suited his ambitions perfectly – a humble team with fans who love humble players. That was the best move imaginable, and the national team came calling.
Freuler made his Switzerland debut at the age of 25, but remained on the bench throughout the 2018 World Cup, behind Granit Xhaka, Valon Behrami, and the highly regarded youngster Denis Zakaria.
Freuler stayed in their shadows, underrated as always, but eventually it was impossible to ignore him. Now, he is the best option for coach Vladimir Petkovic. He has started scoring too – hardly surprising because he used to play up front as a kid.
“Remo has always been under the radar,” Lemos says. “He wasn’t even part of the under-17 squad that won the World Cup in 2009. He is not a shiny midfielder, but incredibly reliable and precise. He is a tireless worker – one of those you don’t notice, but who are involved in almost every move.”
Now Freuler is eager to take on Liverpool again. He was Atalanta’s best performer when the Premier League champions won 5-0 in Bergamo three weeks ago. And with Jurgen Klopp’s squad rather thinned out by injuries, he would love to take revenge for that thrashing on Wednesday.
And then – who knows? – maybe his name will be on everyone’s lips for a change.