Atlanta United head coach Tata Martino opted to go with a fresh face at right-back on Saturday, awarding Anton Walkes his first ever start with Atlanta.
The 20-year old did not disappoint against the Colorado Rapids, working tirelessly up and down the right hand side all evening. With Colorado choosing to sit back and invite pressure, it allowed Atlanta space to run at the defense and gave plenty of freedom to the fullbacks.
Walkes found himself with acres of space on the right side numerous times, exploiting it and initiating attacks. The space made available to him allowed the Englishman to get forward and keep the visitors camped inside their own half for large portions of the game. He almost set up the game’s opener after halftime, cutting a cross back to Josef Martinez who saw his shot saved.
The young right back even came close to a debut goal with less than half an hour remaining as his “cross” looped toward the far post, but Tim Howard managed to recover and save it comfortably.
On the other hand, his defensive contributions were perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance. He constantly thwarted Colorado when they attempted to get forward, and his pace allowed him to track back well on more than one occasion. Up against Josh Gatt, who does not lack speed, Walkes held firm and kept the left-midfielder in check. It was an assured defensive performance from a player who was in unfamiliar territory as a fullback.
Nerves were expected in the 20-year old’s first start, and there were a couple of shaky moments, but he seemed to handle the pressure well. A natural center-back, Walkes look comfortable on the right side of the defense and did his job as he replaced the regular right-back, Tyrone Mears.
Walkes’ versatility gave Martino options before he was given the start against Colorado and after an impressive performance, he now gives himself a solid chance at featuring more often.
The man on loan from Tottenham Hotspur certainly impressed his head coach last night.
“He showed character tonight, especially since he found that he was going to play in our technical talk before the game,” Tata Martino said.
“It was very challenging but a great experience,” Walkes told the media post-game. “(Playing right back) you’re just higher up so you might have to think a little bit quicker.”
With plenty of games on the horizon, don’t be surprised to see more of Walkes at right back. The 20-year old has struggled to break into the team so far this season, but he rewarded his coach’s faith with a strong performance on Saturday night. A rotation of Mears and Walkes may be the solution going forward, resting Mears occasionally and giving the younger Walkes more experience at the top level.
It wasn’t perfect and there is room for improvement, but the Anton Walkes at right back experiment paid off against the Colorado Rapids. One start and one clean sheet for Walkes - something he won’t soon forget.