And just like that, we’re at the first international break of the 2023/24 season (the one everyone particularly likes to complain about).
It gives managers a time to look back and assess and gives them time on the training pitch to fix what’s broken – at least with the players that aren’t representing their countries. One area of concern going into the season for Liverpool fans was the form of Andy Robertson, and his suitability to the well-documented new system that Jürgen Klopp implemented in the latter stages of last season.
A lot of people – even myself included – felt the club needed to be more proactive in the market, to go out there and get a younger player, with more suitability to both defending and building up in central areas.
READ MORE: Injuries and suspensions highlight coming storm for Liverpool’s defence
After all, Robertson is now 29 years old, and while that isn’t exactly over the hill, he’s racked up 22,968 minutes in his seven seasons at the club – 77% of the total minutes Liverpool have played in that time – there are a lot of miles in his legs. He was – and still is – an extremely high energy and attacking focused full-back. He currently holds the record for the most assists by a defender in the Premier League, with 54 (being chased down, of course, by teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold).
If a clip could encapsulate the Scotsman as a footballer, it would be the famous one vs. Manchester City…
Klopp was trying to turn an all-action, hundred a mile an hour always left-back into a positionally disciplined, covering central areas, left sided centre-back. As the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and if you can, it doesn’t happen overnight (okay, I’ve added the second part of that saying to fit into the narrative of this article).
It’s fair to say that the early stages have been shaky at best. Yet the manager persisted with him there in pre-season, despite complaints from supporters. Four games in, and with Liverpool picking up 10 points from a possible 12, things are positive on the red half of Merseyside, including at the left-back position.
I’ve looked at Liverpool’s number 26 this season, analysing what’s been good, and where there is potential improvement.
One of the biggest criticisms of Robertson as the left back/left-sided centre-back hybrid role has been his positioning.
Positioning on a football pitch is coachable, but it’s also something that becomes automatic over time. Robertson has been coached, since he broke through at Queen’s Park, to position himself like a left-back. That then evolved when he made the move to Anfield, where he was coached to be an attacking left back in one of the most dominant teams of recent times. Now, as mentioned, he’s being coached to be an outside centre-back.
If we look at a couple of average position maps from last season, via SofaScore:
7-0, vs. Manchester United (pre-system change)
1-0, vs. Brentford (post-system change)
As we can see from above, Robertson is positioned extremely high and wide – he is almost a winger in both games, despite the second being him part of a back three in possession. There are at least five teammates who average a position deeper than him. Let’s compare that with two of the same types of maps from this season, again via SofaScore:
1-1, vs. Chelsea
3-0, vs. Aston Villa
While this is a small sample size (and the other two games this season he was in a side with a numerical disadvantage) there is a clear shift in his positioning.
Against Chelsea, Liverpool played without the ball for most of the game (35% possession in total), looking to catch Chelsea on the counter. In this context, Robertson’s positioning makes more sense, part of a unit that is sitting deep. The latest game, though, offered much more evidence of a change in mindset for the Glaswegian. Liverpool dominated Aston Villa, they had 64% possession, they scored three goals from 2.47 expected goals, played with incredible intensity, and kept a clean sheet for the first time in what feels like forever.
His average position was again behind the halfway line, there were only two deeper Liverpool players than him – Joe Gomez and Joël Matip. He is not as wide as you’d expect him to be either, he’s tucking in to create a three-man defensive base for Liverpool to build from.
On the Ball
This leads us on to Robertson’s role in build-up. Previously he was asked to push high and wide, overlapping the left-winger who would cut inside. Now, he’s asked to be much more involved in deep build-up, receiving the ball in the initial stages and punching passes into the midfield or wide areas. It’s something that didn’t come easy at first, but there has been considerable improvement in this aspect.
In Liverpool’s four games this season, no player has had more touches of the ball (87.3 per 90, this is slightly bettered by Joe Gomez’s 96.7 who has less than half of Robertson’s game time), more pass attempts (78 per 90) or progressive passes (6.25 per 90) than the Scotland captain.
His touches in the defensive third per 90 are considerably higher than at any point in his Liverpool career – 32.8, the next best season was last 2022/23 at 24.1. While the numbers don’t always give us the full picture, what they do tell us is that Robertson is being trusted way more with the initial phases of Liverpool’s build-up.
At goal kicks and when Alisson has possession of the ball, we will often see Alexander-Arnold pushing into a central area, the right centre-back then fills the space left by him, and the left centre-back tucks in tight to the Brazilian keeper to give him a short option. This then opens the angle for Robertson to receive the ball deep in a wide left position, for the most part in acres of space.
© Proshots – Andy Robertson
This is where Liverpool’s summer recruitment has helped Robertson in these situations. Last season the Reds’ midfield was poor in creating space for themselves in build-up. Fabinho was too static, Henderson doesn’t like receiving the ball on the turn and the left central midfielder position wasn’t tied down by anyone, meaning no rhythm or automations were created.
In Alexis Mac Allister, Robertson has a constant passing lane open. The Argentinian’s ability to create separation between himself and an opponent combined with being able to turn and evade pressure with relative ease has meant that Robertson is much more comfortable playing the short pass into central areas rather than being pressured to go back to a defender/goalkeeper or punt an aimless ball up the pitch.
Luis Díaz’s playstyle and the relationship the two have developed has also helped. The Colombian winger likes to drop deep, keeping a wide position in the early stages of build-up. This gives Robertson two solid passing options in the early stages of possession every time, and with Liverpool being comfortable on both sides of the pitch (Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Szoboszlai is arguably better than Robertson, Mac Allister and Díaz in build-up), there is variation that allows the team to hurt opponents in lots of different ways.
READ MORE: Is Liverpool’s new system actually working?
Off the Ball
While a lot of Robertson’s off the ball stuff has been touched on in the positioning section, I felt it was important to have a look at his defensive numbers and provide some context in those. So far this season, Robertson is putting up three tackles and interceptions per 90, the best numbers of his Liverpool career since the 2018/19 season (3.05). He is averaging more clearances per 90 than he ever has (3.25 – his previous best being 2.59 in 2017/18). While it’s an extremely small sample size and there is a long way to go this season, he is yet to make an error that leads to an opponent shooting – something he did three times last season.
Let’s first look at the first two stats – tackles and interceptions and clearances. His deeper starting positioning means he is defending his box more, shown in his 5.5 touches per 90 in his own box, again considerably the most he’s had in his career at the club. This provides the context for clearances, while in the last few seasons he’s been a late arrive in his own box as other teams attack, he’s now naturally positioned in better places to deal with these situations.
He’s noticeably more present at the back post as teams cross the ball. His deeper starting position also allows him a better view of the game and opposition attacks as they progress. His tackles are less last ditch attempts to stop a goal from behind and now more from a position of strength, challenging the ball head on. This is the same for interceptions. An underrated part of Robertson’s game is his ability to read plays, him starting deeper means he can cut out passes that look to catch Liverpool out. This then allows him to be the old Robertson again, driving the ball forward as they counter.
The biggest weakness though, is his positioning. While for the most part it has been good, there have been several times this season already where he has done the instinctive thing, rather than the right thing.
For Bournemouth’s opener on matchday three, Robertson sprints towards Dom Solanke and the ball instead of leaving van Dijk to deal with his man, completely losing Semenyo in the process, and after Robertson has a wild swipe at the ball the Bournemouth attacker has acres of space to smash the ball home.
Overall, Robertson has defied the critics and started the season well.
He may not be the long-term solution in that role, but he’s shown that he can adapt and do his job there week in week out. I’ve been particularly impressed by his adaptation to deep build-up play, and while there are still deficiencies in his defensive positioning, the deeper starting position has allowed him to be a more proactive rather than reactive defender.