Atherton said England missed the ruthless streak of Michael Vaughan, who is out of action through injury.
''What England needed in the aftermath of the Ashes was somebody to focus minds and crack heads together,'' Atherton told the Daily Mirror.
''The mateness the team has displayed towards the opposition over the last month suggests the ruthless intent of last summer has been lacking. Flintoff is an amiable man and his style of captaincy reflected that.'' Flintoff, who stepped in as skipper after Vaughan hurt his knee in India, is himself out of the one-day series with Sri Lanka with a sore ankle and Atherton says the injury could be a blessing in disguise.
''The only positive benefit of the injury to Flintoff may be the end of his captaincy ambitions,'' Atherton, who has captained England in more Tests than anyone, added.
England play a one-day international against Ireland in Belfast tomorrow before a Twenty20 game against Sri Lanka on Thursday and the five-match NatWest Series.