Nathaniel Atkinson to Hearts: Why it would be a smart signing and what it means for Michael Smith

"Lovely skills from Atkinson. Get used to that. He’s a versatile player, technically very astute, comfortable on the football”.

Nathaniel Atkinson has been linked with a move to Hearts. (Photo by Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images)
Nathaniel Atkinson has been linked with a move to Hearts. (Photo by Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images)

In the recent Melbourne derby in the A-League, Hearts target Nathaniel Atkinson was quite often the focus of the commentary duo as they showered him with praise.

The 22-year-old was referred to as a “livewire" and watching him play it is easy to see why. Up and down the pitch at pace for 90 minutes, fitting into exactly what Robbie Neilson and the club want in players arriving at Tynecastle Park.

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“It’s more the profile we’re looking for – the age, the athleticism," he said when asked about Atkinson. “Hopefully they can come and firstly settle in quickly, then do well for the club.”

Hearts have agreed a deal with Melbourne City to sign the Australian youth international with the hope it is completed at some point in January.

Seeing him in action for last season’s A-League winners, you can see a player who would really add to and elevate the existing squad in Gorgie.

As a whole, Hearts have performed well under Neilson this season, predominantly in a 3-4-2-1 formation, although many observers are aware of a lack of attacking penetration from the wing-backs. Both Alex Cochrane and Michael Smith have not let the team down but there is an argument that the side needs a bit more verve out wide which would in turn help the attacking trio.

Running and dribbling

Atkinson plays with plenty of verve and is a more attack-minded option than Smith on the right, having played as a right-winger at times last season and so far this campaign.

He is, however, at his best slightly deeper, making runs from deep and coming onto the ball with the game in front of him.

In the recent 2-2 draw with Melbourne Victory he was playing as an auxiliary centre-back at times but would still make regular positive runs forward which is a key feature of his game. Last season he averaged 3.93 progressive runs per 90, three times more than Smith has this campaign and his dribbles per 90 stood at 7.47. Smith is currently at 1.46. It’s therefore no surprise he is more productive at creating chances and getting touches in the opposition box, aided by spells as a right-winger.

Defensive approach

A good acceleration allows him to get away from opponents and he covers ground really well. Importantly, he does that going backwards as well to recover the ball.

Hearts fans will like his approach to defending. He will engage the ball and get in the opponent’s face. His body position is good in 1v1 situations, allowing him to turn freely without getting tangled up.

Smith has recorded better success rates in defensive and aerial duels, so it may well be an area he will need to improve upon in Scotland.

Looking at the short-term, it is easy to see Neilson moving Smith to left centre-back due to Stephen Kingsley’s injury if he continues with the back three. The Northern Irishman’s best position, it can be argued, is centrally.

Atkinson is more suited to the wing-back role, providing width, stretching the game and making bombarding runs forward.

On paper, it looks like a very shrewd capture.

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