Bristol City’s Rob Atkinson can be the diamond around which Robins defence is built

Former Oxford United defender has been outstanding recently for the West Country outfit.

Bristol City defender Rob Atkinson is a jewel. But we perhaps didn’t realise quite how much until recently.

An illness in the middle of the season knocked the former Braintree player off his long galloping stride but slowly and surely the player has worked his way back into Nigel Pearson’s first team, in stark contrast to his quick reading of the game.

Pearson is old school. Disciplined and obstinate at times. So don’t play down how difficult it is to play your way back into his XI.

Thankfully the manager recognises the talent that Atkinson is and has already decreed that one way or another Atkinson will play in the Premier League in the future.

Jacob Brown of Stoke City is challenged by Rob Atkinson of Bristol City.

And that could be sooner than we think, with Premier League scouts at Ashton Gate recently to watch the player in action.

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Indeed, how about this as an exciting portent to the future?

The Robins defender ranks as Bristol City’s best player statistically this season. The former ‘Vanarama Van Dijk’ (as he was termed at former club Eastleigh by some fans) clocks a higher average match rating than even sharp-shooters Andi Weimann or Antoine Semenyo have done across the 2021/22 campaign.

That’s according to the WhoScored.com website, powered by Opta data used by clubs the world over and measuring footballers’ performances across many metrics.

Further, of all the Championship central defenders to have played at least 10 games at the back, Atkinson ranks as third in the entire division.

Only Stoke’s highly rated Harry Souttar - who has missed a large chunk of the season through injury - and Steve Cook - named by many as one of Steve Cooper’s signings of the season - rank higher than Atkinson.

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The former Oxford United man, who may be reunited with one or two of his colleagues in the summer after manager Nigel Pearson went to view several transfer targets at the Kassam recently, has a higher average score than former U Rob Dickie, Millwall’s Jake Cooper, Barnsley’s Michal Helik or Chelsea talent Levi Colwill.

Not bad for a first, interrupted, season in the Championship. Perhaps Pearson and head of technical recruitment Sean Gilhespy deserve some praise here. There is a diamond at the back of the City defence for those in the know.

Since his return to the side, the 23-year-old has hit two goals - against Peterborough and Bournemouth - and helped oversee an improvement in City’s defending.

A large part of this has been from switching to playing central in a back three to left of the back three, where Atkinson has a little more licence to roam forward with the ball at times.

No doubt having the organisation and experience of Timm Klose to the side of him has helped, while the physical Robbie Cundy’s contributions of late should not be dismissed either.

But with Atkinson returning to the side for a full 90 minutes of action on March 12 against Blackburn Rovers, City kept a clean sheet, and did so away at Stoke City and this Saturday again of course.

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Bristol City lost only two of nine games in that time, winning four. They conceded 11 goals in those nine matches at a rate of 1.2 per game. That compares to a season average of 1.67 as 75 goals have flown in during 45 matches.

Atkinson, who lived in France for a period when young and played for AS Cannes at youth level, speaks French to Han-Noah Massengo and coach Kalifa Cisse. He left the Fulham academy for first-team opportunities in 2019, and is obviously happy to exit his comfort zone.

Maybe that’s why we see those spearing runs up the middle of the pitch, carrying the ball into dangerous areas.

With Tomas Kalas and Nathan Baker still to possibly come back from the sidelines, suddenly Bristol City have some real depth in the middle of their defence and competition for places. Cundy and Klose have been made new contract offers and look set to remain at Ashton Gate.

But we’re sure that we will see Atkinson continuing to feature from here on in, who has a class to his play that recalls Adam Webster’s fine sweeping up at the back.

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Last summer the Robins were convinced enough to spend a relatively big sum on Atkinson. In this relative time of famine, with covid having severely impacted the club’s finances and dented thoughts of spending in the transfer market, the Robins have a rich, blossoming talent at the back to build around.