In many ways Andy Robertson and Erling Haaland are in similar boats. Two of the foremost advocates of their very different craft were neither present in Qatar as Scotland and Norway respectively failed to qualify for the World Cup.
In the various matches between Liverpool and Manchester City, the pair came away with two wins each last season. But it was far more of a campaign to remember for Haaland, who ended it with a treble.
Well, it was almost over. In fact, Haaland had to rush into international duty, where he faced Robertson and Scotland just a week after the Champions League final. Their respective nations are battling to qualify for the next European Championship and this time it was the Liverpool man who prevailed.
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Having beaten Spain away in March following a routine home win against Cyprus, the Scots continued a remarkable 100 per cent record with some late drama in Norway. Haaland had opened the scoring from the penalty spot, but goals in the 87th and 89th minutes ended 2-1.
Unlike in his last Liverpool outing, Robertson was tasked with a very attacking brief, asked to bomb forward from wing-back and cause problems in the final third. Under Jürgen Klopp, he has at times slotted in as a third centre-back to accommodate Trent Alexander-Arnold’s thrust into midfield. But he reminded everyone of his hallmarks here and scored a nine out of 10 The Scotsmanwho sang his praises for ‘doing the work of two players’.
That’s not to say he’s done a bad job as a utility center defender, where he’s also gotten through the work of two players, albeit in a different way. Robertson has probably surprised many with his adaptability to the task, contributing to an 11-game unbeaten run to end Liverpool’s season. But there is a sense that he is being unnecessarily shackled.
Interestingly, Scotland has already reached a similar conclusion. Blessed with a surprising amount of talent at left-back, successive managers have had to be creative and there was a time when Robertson was used as a left-sided centre-back. But it now seems settled that the country’s talisman is better off in areas where he can have more influence.
Robertson is not the Liverpool team’s talisman, just as Haaland is surrounded by far more talent at Manchester City than he is at Norway. But he’s been a consistent provider of massive assist numbers at Anfield for a long time now, and effectively reducing him to a set-piece threat seems like a waste.
The Scottish solution has been to use Kieran Tierney as a left-sided centre-back. Massively rated at Celtic, he never achieved the same prominence at Arsenal, but he is still highly respected in the game. This is reflected in the fact that Newcastle is preparing a bid, per Football Insiderwith Manchester City also monitoring the situation.
He is also a marauding left-back, but he has nevertheless made the more central berth his own for Scotland. He certainly showed that against Norway, with The Scotsman naming him ‘the most robust and unruffled presence’ in the back line. It was only when the injury forced him off that Haaland got his goal.
It is undoubtedly this dual functionality that has caught Manchester City’s eye. Newcastle may plan to use him as a more traditional full-back, but it would still be a useful option for Eddie Howe to have.
And in truth, Liverpool should also be on the scene for Robertson’s international partner. That would immediately give Klopp options: Alexander-Arnold as a hybrid will not be viable in every encounter, and having the two Scots on the books would allow the manager to switch fairly seamlessly between a back four and a back three depending on the opponent.
In other words, Klopp could ask Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to pull the strings from the flanks in some games, the plan that led to Liverpool becoming champions in all. But to keep opponents guessing, he could also continue to call on his right-back to step into midfield in certain games, now with a specialist on the left ready to slot in when he’s not in possession.
Then there would also be the opportunity to effectively mirror the right-sided plan on the left flank, and ape the Scottish set-up by playing Tierney and Robertson together. The Arsenal man would tuck in and step out based on his partner’s movements. It seems the least likely set-up and would probably require someone like Joe Gomez at right-back (perhaps even with Alexander-Arnold as a bona fide midfielder), but it is a possibility.
Reducing Robertson’s workload seems like a smart idea regardless of any tactical changes. Now 29, he has played a lot of football since breaking into the Liverpool team as a starter, and Klopp must give him the protection he can. Kostas Tsimikas has played that role to some extent, but he is 27 himself and not set to be a long-term successor.
Tierney is more than a year younger. Hijacking Newcastle’s transfer window would provide Liverpool with a viable heir apparent and an immediate rotational option – one that can offer a new tactical advantage – in one fell swoop. It could be Klopp’s perfect left field solution.