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Checking in on Anton Walkes

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A first-person account of the Tottenham prospect’s season on loan at MLS outfit Atlanta United.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor’s note: Joe Patrick is a contributor for us at Cartilage Free Captain, but he is also an editor at Atlanta United’s SBN blog Dirty South Soccer. As a press credentialed media member for Atlanta, he’s seen Spurs’ own Anton Walkes up close and personal this year, so we asked him to give us his thoughts on how the young defender is progressing this season.)

If you ask five different Atlanta United fans their opinion on Anton Walkes, they’ll probably give you five different answers. The basis of that confusion revolves around the player Anton Walkes is, vs. who fans expect him to be.

The story of Walkes’ season is an interesting one. Though this is pure conjecture on my part, I have no doubt that Atlanta United Manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino and Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino had a phone call to discuss the merits of the loan deal for both the player and the respective clubs. We’ll circle back to this later.

While Martino probably would’ve liked to give the 20-year old Englishman some time to settle in to life with a new club in a new country, Walkes was forced into action at CB on two occasions early in the season, and honestly he was not good. He was forced into action in the club’s debut game (Atlanta United is a newly formed club that is playing its inaugural season in MLS this year) and was at fault for the deciding goal in the match (an own goal from Walkes, in fact). Aside from one other emergency appearance at CB, Walkes was completely unused for the first 3 months of the season.

Come early June, Martino finally called upon him. But instead of playing CB, Martino fielded him at RB where the team needed energy and defensive solidity. Despite having only practiced at the position for one training session before his first start for Atlanta United, he helped Atlanta to a win and a clean sheet. And another one. And another.... After Walkes’ insertion into the starting XI at RB, Atlanta kept three clean sheets in its next 4 games (the team had only kept 2 clean sheets in its 16 league matches to that point.)

Since then, Walkes has been a regular starter, putting in solid minutes for the club. Since his introduction into the team in early June, he’s only been rested on one or two occasions. He’s really a key figure in the squad for a team that has been on a very good stretch and will be one of the favorites in the MLS playoffs coming up in November (Atlanta currently sits third in the league overall). The main points of contention surrounding him among Atlanta fans have to do mostly with what he lacks on the ball and his end product. Atlanta fields a much more natural LB across from Walkes who is a more of a modern, two-way fullback, so Walkes’ deficiencies stand out more via proxy. His pure athleticism, stamina and willingness to get stuck into challenges is what’s helped him solidify his place in the team. The club’s other right back, Tyrone Mears, is 34 and has seen better days, so Walkes offers things physically that Mears cannot.

The thing that worries me about Walkes, and why I don’t think he has a future at Spurs, is that he simply hasn’t excelled at CB. Martino played him recently as a right-sided CB in a 3, and the team conceded 3 goals, with Walkes being beaten twice in the air for two of them. He switches off frequently. At RB, that doesn’t come back to bite him so much because he has cover behind him. When playing at CB though, his lapses in concentration have proved costly.

Walkes seems to have grown from the experience playing in Atlanta. The burgeoning franchise is averaging crowds of over 40,000 fans, so it’s not a tame environment to play in. The way he has adapted his game since the beginning of the season is good to see, but I may be more impressed with his mentality. He’s shown personal accountability for his actions on the pitch. After the team dropped points to it’s closest rival and Walkes was at least partially at fault for two goals, he put out a statement on his twitter account after the match.

So where does this leave Walkes and Tottenham going forward? Just a couple weeks ago, Spurs announced that they’d signed the young player — who Pochettino has given a first-team appearance, mind you — to a contract extension until June 2019. It’s a strange one, given that, in my opinion, Walkes simply doesn’t seem like he’s anywhere near Tottenham’s level. I have it on good authority that Martino is a big fan of Walkes, so I wouldn’t wager against either another year on loan or a sale to Atlanta. But it’s very possible that Pochettino wants another close look at him in training before deciding to sell. The extension could very well just be a mechanism for Spurs to earn some cash out of any potential deal.

I will try to remember to revisit the comments here and replay to anyone who has any specific questions. I know there are a fair few Atlantans that are regular readers, so they may be able to offer some insight as well.