PROFILING HIS BEST ATTRIBUTES ASSESSING HIS FUTURE ANALYSING HIS STATS LEARNING ABOUT HIS STORY SO FAR
Who is Nathaniel Atkinson?
Emerging from the brisk sunlight of Launceston in the island state of Tasmania, Nathaniel Atkinson established himself as one of the best players in the top-tier of Australian football while playing for Melbourne City.
Ruthless and energetic, Atkinson is a creative influence from right-back and had European clubs circling for his signature after starring in a win against Argentina and a narrow loss against the Pedri and Oyarzabal-led Spain at the Tokyo Olympics.
After more than 70 games in the A-League, the 22-year-old has earned a move to the Edinburgh-based Heart of Midlothian who perhaps determined that Atkinson represented a good value-for-money transfer after the almost immediate success of Cameron Devlin (pictured below) who too was signed from Australia.
Uniquely capable of producing moments of magic both in and out of possession, Atkinson is nominally a right-back yet has impressed in more advanced positions.
While a hamstring injury threatened to curtail Atkinson’s last full season in Australia, the dynamic defender made a miraculous comeback and played a starring role in Melbourne City’s A-League Championship triumph. This was best illustrated by him being awarded the Joe Marston Medal for the best player afield in the Grand Final in a performance which saw him register a goal and six chances created while playing on the right-wing.
Perceived as one of, if not, the most likely of Australia’s wave of young talents to succeed in Europe, Atkinson will arrive in Edinburgh with a characteristic sense of confidence and desire to assert himself on a top league.
Nathaniel Atkinson's style of play
Atkinson’s playstyle is an idiosyncratic coalescence of the grit and determination synonymous with Australian players over the last 20 years, as well as good ability on the ball. A willing ball-carrier, the Hearts signing has an air of confidence on the ball that verges on arrogant at times, such is his upright body positioning when dribbling.
His willingness to break open opposition defences through penetrative forward runs is arguably Atkinson’s most unique trait, given that it is more often synonymous with an advanced midfielder or a wide attacker than a full-back.
Under the relatively inexperienced but successful Patrick Kisnorbo, Atkinson’s role at Melbourne City was very much focused on highlighting his strengths on the ball. Similar to their City Football Group counterparts in England, Kisnorbo’s philosophy revolves around positional rotations in midfield and defence with the team inverting both of their full-backs and playing with wide wingers in a 4-3-3 system that often resembles a 2-3-5 when unlocking low-block sides.
Speaking to the media earlier this season, Atkinson made clear that he enjoys playing as an inverted full-back and relishes the opportunity to get on the ball:
“It’s a very unusual way of playing. Manchester City play that over in England and I think we try to replicate that a little bit,” he said. “When I first came to Melbourne City I was a midfielder as well so it’s not too out of the ordinary for me to play in the middle. I’ve had that experience [as an inverted full-back] and I thoroughly enjoy it.”
While injuries limited him to just over 1000 minutes in the league last season, Atkinson often showcased his ability to make forward runs from both wide and central positions as he looked to illustrate his bravery and expressiveness in possession. Most impressive is the fact that he completed 4.26 progressive runs per 90 last season which ranked him in the 97th percentile across the A-League and 99th percentile among A-League defenders.
In addition, the Australian has an innate ability to effortlessly combine with teammates in tight midfield spaces as he tends to play passes with the outside of his right foot to emerge from these duels without losing the ball. This skill at making quick decisions when under duress combined with his 1.81 metre stature often makes him difficult to dispossess as is justified by him ranking in the 99th percentile among A-League defenders last season for ball retention.
Despite this capacity to keep the ball, Atkinson’s first touch is inconsistent and he therefore often relies on his physical strength to evade imminent pressure from the opposition.
When playing at a level which offers a higher intensity than the A-League, Atkinson risks being exposed for this deficiency, particularly when directly faced with players that can match his physical profile.
🇦🇺 Nathaniel Atkinson (1999) (RB/LB/RW) highlights.— AussieScout (@scout_aussie) July 1, 2021
Atkinson is a dynamic, modern fullback. He is quick and athletic, excellent 1v1 and strong in the tackle. He is technically proficient and constantly willing on the overlap. He has the potential to play at a high level. pic.twitter.com/CZUDdfFI4a
Given that the A-League is largely bereft of attackers who seamlessly combine technical skill, power and pace, Atkinson has been scarcely challenged in this respect and may need to improve the consistency of his touches to ensure he retains the freedom to express himself on the ball.
‘Natty Akka’, as he is affectionately known in Australia, is also a supreme athlete. As aforementioned, the Tasmanian is strong in the upper body but can accelerate to great speeds from a stationary start. Atkinson often uses this skill when supporting attacking sequences and when bypassing lines of pressure. He is quite shrewd in his body positioning when accelerating as he often looks to use his strength to get between the defender and the ball before turning onto his right foot and swiftly accelerating to draw a foul.
When combining athleticism with his skillset on the ball, Atkinson adds a dimension of unpredictability to a team’s attack given that he is adept at receiving the ball in different areas, both out wide and in central areas. When positioned out wide, Atkinson can be a dangerous commodity due to his attacking nous, ability to generate passing sequences with team-mates and crossing ability.
When marauding into more central attacking positions, Atkinson is less effective at playing an incisive pass but this is arguably more of a product of the system in which he was deployed at Melbourne City than a weakness. Instead, when occupying central areas on the pitch, Atkinson prefers to release teammates into space through progressive passes. Despite his general comfort both on the ball and in attack, this lack of incisiveness in the final third is possibly the best explanation for his lower than expected assist tally of just three across 70 A-League appearances.
With that said, however, a ranking inside the 97th percentile (0.18 per 90) among defenders last season for expected assists points to gradual improvement in this area and suggests that better finishing from his teammates could have resulted in him registering more assists.
For all his strengths on the ball, it would be easy to assume that Atkinson is idle defensively. However, such assumptions could not be further from the truth. The Socceroos prospect is aggressive in the challenge and is very active defensively, as is demonstrated by his average of 2.84 tackles per 90 last season while also recording eight tackles and three interceptions in his first start of this season against crosstown rivals Melbourne Victory.
Atkinson showcased this particular strength with his indefatigable resilience at the Tokyo Olympics when faced with the prospect of defending wingers Ezequiel Barco, Javi Puado and Tottenham’s summer signing, Bryan Gil. In some respects, his defensive aggressiveness is both a strength and a weakness in that it allows him to instigate quick transitions from defence should he win the ball but he often finds himself mistiming challenges and exuding an air of frustration.
This issue of discipline was placed under the microscope at the Olympics when Atkinson was ruled out of the Olyroos’ final group game against Egypt through an accumulation of bookable offences after he committed a silly challenge late in the game against Spain which earned him a yellow card.
Forecasting Nathaniel Atkinson's future
Upon Atkinson’s arrival, the young Australian will likely be tasked with fulfilling a role as a right wing-back in Robbie Neilson’s 3-4-3 system. In theory, this role should give Atkinson the flexibility which is required to fully maximise his skillset both in and out of possession.
Atkinson appears well-suited to the Scottish game given his physical capabilities, while his ability on the ball should differentiate him from the more traditional full-backs in Scotland.
At 22 years old, his scope for improvement is enormous and his ceiling is sky-high. In essence, Atkinson is a prototype of everything required of a modern full-back given that he is so comfortable on the ball and adept at attacking from multiple angles.
With this in mind, a call-up to the Australian national team is undoubtedly imminent with injury woes and a long off-season representing the only possible explanations for his lack of appearances thus far.
Irrespective of the A-League’s level when compared to competitions in Europe, Atkinson has proven himself to be a truly dominant force from the right-back position and could easily represent incredible value for clubs wishing to swoop in the future.
While maximising his performances at Hearts will be Atkinson’s main priority for the moment, a replication of his confidence, technique and defensive solidity in Scotland will almost certainly alert his name to some of the top managers in world football as the young full-back looks to fly the Australian flag in Europe.
Atkinson is a versatile full-back with effortless ability and confidence on the ball. He excels in combination play with his teammates while his superb athletic profile allows him to support attacking sequences with ease.
While Atkinson does not possess any resounding weaknesses, such is his well-roundedness as a player, his inconsistent first touch may limit his attacking prowess when playing outside of Australia. Additionally, Atkinson can tend to make rash decisions in a defensive sense, particularly when he is frustrated.