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Putting the W in Walkes: Anton gets the job done

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Atlanta United’s form with the young Englishman at right back is undeniable.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Atlanta United FC Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

When you think of the perfect fullback, what do you picture in your mind? I think of a diminutive, agile, speedy player. A player who will throw himself into challenges, a player who has lungs of a triathlete, and an ability to whip in crosses. I think of players like Dani Alves, Danny Rose, Kyle Walker and Marcelo.

I do not think of a player like Anton Walkes. At first sight, the 20-year old defender from Lewisham, London, England seems a bit awkward shoved out on the right flank. He’s tall and muscular — built more like a center back or a target forward. He’s athletic, but not particularly fleet-of-foot as you’d expect from a fullback. He’s most definitely not accustomed to playing in the areas of the pitch that Tata Martino has him positioned — pushed up high and hugging the touchline when the team is in possession.

Yet, four league games after his introduction to the starting XI, Atlanta hasn’t dropped a point, going 4-0-0. Three of those four games have resulted in a clean sheet for Atlanta’s defense to boot. Is Walkes the difference? Time will tell, but right now it’s hard to say otherwise. That’s not to say Walkes is a perfect player or a perfect fullback, because he’s not. But he’s exactly what Atlanta United need out of the position. Tata Martino needs a player who will dare to go forward — all the way forward — and then bust it back to defend. He needs a player who can help win the balls in the air to make the team less susceptible to opposing set pieces.

What Tata Martino doesn’t need (keyword: need) out his his fullbacks is pinpoint crossing. Would this be an added benefit? No doubt. But just because you play a system with fullbacks pushed up into the attacking phase doesn’t mean you need them delivering the final ball. Rather, they’re needed for their positioning — to present a threat and force the opposition to mark space spanning the entire width of the pitch.

Here’s a clip from Atlanta’s first match against the Chicago Fire this season. While the Fire are defending narrowly having been reduced to playing with 10 men after a red card, look how Atlanta uses the wide areas to open up space centrally. Watch Chris McCann’s run to the left flank that drag Chicago’s CB Joao Meira out of position, giving Asad a gap to exploit and play Martinez through on goal.

While the fullbacks aren’t in play here, the idea is that by threatening all areas of the pitch, you create stress on the defense and eventually they will crack. You don’t want fullbacks pumping in crosses at every attempt, because history shows us that such a plan isn’t a winning strategy. This article from StatsBomb tells us that cross completion percentage can be misleading, as cross conversion percentage — that is the result of a goal within five seconds of a cross -- is pretty bleak. On average, only 1.76% of crosses are converted to goals.

But I digress. Why the obsession with crosses? Because that seems to be the major issue most people have with Anton Walkes’s play.

and last, but not least, my favorite:

Walkes is most definitely an upgrade over Mears. Mears is 34 years old, playing a position suited to young, energetic players. Walkes fits that bill and his ability to cover ground on the right flank offers Atlanta solidity while defending and an attacking verve with the ball. If I’m being critical, too often Mears takes too long to control the ball at his feet, allowing defenders to rotate over into position and, usually, stifling the attacking move. Walkes wants to go forward in a more urgent fashion, and while he may sacrifice some ball retention stats in the process, the team as a whole is better off for it.