Australia boss delivers Nathaniel Atkinson verdict after World Cup struggle against France superstar Kylian Mbappe
Socceroos manager Graham Arnold defended Nathaniel Atkinson after the Hearts full-back was given a torrid time by France superstar Kylian Mbappe at the World Cup.
Arnold admitted that the defending champions were “so much bigger, faster and stronger than us” after a bruising 4-1 defeat in the Group D opener in Qatar, but insisted he couldn’t ask any more of his team.
It was a match Atkinson and Hearts teammate Kye Rowles will remember for the rest of their lives, even if French firepower ultimately blew Australia away in an emphatic win.
Atkinson played for 85 minutes, with Rowles lasting the full 98 alongside Harry Souttar, brother of John and born in Aberdeen, in central defence. Hearts teammate Cammy Devlin was an unused sub, but Edinburgh-born-and-bred former Hibs striker Jason Cummings, a fringe player at Dundee this time last year, came off the bench after 56 minutes to add the World Cup to his CV.
Cummings was one of two former Hibs players on show, with Jackson Irvine also featuring from the start and Jamie Maclaren an unused sub. Current Hibs talisman Martin Boyle was ruled out cruelly on the eve of the tournament with a knee injury.
But the inclusion of Dundee United’s Aziz Behich and Celtic’s Aaron Mooy in the starting XI also ensured there was a strong tartan tinge to the team in gold.
Right-back Atkinson, 23, has been in and out of the Hearts team lately, so lining up directly against Mbappe, deployed on the left wing by France, was never going to be easy. So it proved.
He isn’t the first and won’t be the last to be given a torrid time by one of the world’s most talented and potent attackers, who is just six months his senior. The Hearts man was clearly annoyed with himself after a poor first touch led to France’s second goal, but there were moments he can be proud of. Snuffing out Mbappe’s nutmeg attempt in the 75th minute was one example. Atkinson can also take credit for sticking diligently to his task.
“The kid actually did decently well,” said Arnold. “He did his best against one of the best players in the world. Especially in the first half we had (Mat) Leckie and Jackson Irvine to help him, that was the plan – when Mbappe got the ball, the three of them got out there and helped.
“But how do you stop someone so quick? It’s very difficult. It’s a great lesson for the kid. He’ll move on from it.”
Danny Murphy, the former Liverpool and England midfielder, commentating on ITV, summed up perfectly the scale of the task Atkinson faced going head-to-head with a player of Mbappe’s class.
“He’s got the ability to do that to any full-back, never mind Atkinson,” said Murphy. “It’s not disrespectful to him. He’s got to try and stop a train when he’s in full flow. You can’t. He’s quick feet, he’s got skill, he’s got awareness, he’s got power, he’s got everything.”
Mbappe’s next goal will be the 250th of his career, quite remarkable for a 23-year-old. His 249th career goal, and his first of this World Cup, came in the 68th minute when he out-jumped Rowles to head in Ousmane Dembele's cross. Three minutes later he delivered the perfect cross for Giroud to score with a header, equalling Thierry Henry's record of 51 France goals in the process.
Rowles was up against Livingston striker Joel Nouble less than two weeks ago and was sent off for pulling down the big striker, but here he was up against Giroud on a night when the experienced AC Milan striker became France’s all-time joint top scorer.
Like Atkinson, he competed to the end, but better teams than Australia will struggle to cope with the French forward line when they play like this.
Australia, who face Tunisia next before meeting Denmark, are still in with a chance of progress and cannot be discounted just yet.