The news of Atlanta United agreeing to a six-month loan for Anton Walkes, a promising and versatile defender in the Tottenham youth ranks, was a refreshing surprise with the 2017 MLS season just more than a month away.
The two clubs are somewhat intertwined, and key personnel from both clubs have an established and meaningful relationship. It’s well known that AUFC President Darren Eales was hired away from Tottenham as he was serving as their director of football administration. In fact, it was Eales’ relationship with Tottenham Manager Mauricio Pochettino that allowed AUFC to come in closer contact with one of the Spurs boss’ friends and proteges — Tata Martino. Clearly there’s a relationship between the two clubs.
Walkes, 19, began to make an imprint in North London in 2017. It began with his surprise inclusion in the team’s preseason tour of Australia, where Spurs faced off against European giants Atletico Madrid and Juventus. Walkes appeared in both games, and Pochettino even gave him an appearance in an EFL Cup match in September.
Walkes was one of three Tottenham U-21 players to earn playing time in Spurs’ EFL Cup match vs. Gillingham in September. Pochettino praised all three when speaking to the press after the game:
"I am very happy because if you see the confidence of Carter-Vickers, Harry Winks, Anton Walkes, they were fantastic. They come through the academy but they have the quality to impress us and play for the first team."
For this reason, it’s even more surprising that Atlanta was able to secure this loan deal. Pochettino is notorious for keeping his most prized youth players close to the first-team squad in an effort to better instill his playing philosophy. Since Pochettino took charge, notable youth talent such as Harry Winks, Josh Onomah and Cameron Carter-Vickers have not left the club, despite a lack of first-team minutes.
Jack Pitt-Brooke, a Tottenham Hotspur beat reporter for the Independent, put it this way:
Pochettino believes that the most talented youngsters are better off being coached by him and his assistants rather than going to another team on loan. Although the youngsters would play more games out on loan, Pochettino would rather instil his football values into them while assessing whether they can step into his first team. He does not want his prospects being taught other principles by different coaches.
It’s possible that Pochettino is softening his stance on the loan system. It’s also possible that Pochettino has found a club, or at the very least a coach in Tata Martino, that he can trust. Pochettino and Martino played together for Newell’s Old Boys under Manager Marcelo Bielsa, and both managers are two of the more famous “Bielsistas” who have flourished in the modern game by employing Bielsa’s footballing philosophy.
Darren Eales spoke to the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Atlanta United beat reporter Doug Roberson about the Walkes deal, and said the trust between the two clubs was a key reason the deal came to fruition.
“It says a lot that Spurs trust loaning him to us,” said Eales, who worked at Tottenham before being hired to oversee Atlanta United. “They know they will get the best available for their player. We want to be seen at this kind of club that elite clubs around the world want to deal with.”
Could this move for Walkes be the tip of an iceberg that could see Atlanta United loaning more Tottenham youth in the future? We’ll just have to wait and see.