Progression, movement, and creativity – Why Liverpool star Andy Robertson is one of the best full-backs in the world, helping Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah
Initially in the youth system at Celtic, Robertson was on the brink of starting a university degree when he broke into the first-team of Queens Park in the Scottish Third Division.
His performances at that level saw him earn a move to Dundee United, further up the Scottish pyramid, and he has not stopped moving forward since.
In 2014 Dundee United accepted a bid of under £3million that saw the player moving down to England to join Hull City. He was a part of the team that was promoted to the top-flight and he played as Hull were relegated straight back down to the Championship.
That season, however, was obviously enough to convince Liverpool of his quality and in 2017 Robertson made the move to Anfield for a reported £8m.
Since then he has won the Champions League and the Club World Cup and it looks inevitable that he will pick up a Premier League winners medal this season.
In this tactical analysis, we will examine the traits that have seen Robertson rise to become one of the key players for this dominant Liverpool team.
What kind of player is Robertson?
Under Jurgen Klopp, this Liverpool side have developed a very specific, and very effective, tactical style.
The typical playing structure is a 4-3-3 with a single holding midfielder. The three midfielders, however, tend to be more functional and concerned with making forward runs or blocking the passing lanes to prevent the opposition from playing forward. The full-backs then are responsible for the progression of the ball into the final third.
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The chart above shows all players in the top five leagues who have played at least 1400 minutes at left-back this season. We have then filtered them by the number of progressive runs and progressive passes they make per 90 minutes.
As you can see, other than David Alaba at Bayern Munich, Andrew Robertson is a clear standout. He makes over three progressive runs and plays over 12 progressive passes per 90 minutes and along with Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right, he is a key component in the attacking game plan of Klopp and his coaching staff.
In the attacking phase, Robertson takes up intelligent positions either on the outside or in the half-spaces, depending on the positioning of the players ahead of him.
From this slightly deeper position, he is able to take the ball and play intelligently into the feet of the forward players.
When playing on the outside we tend to see Robertson looking to get around the outside of the defensive block to stretch the opposition defensive structure.
This versatility in terms of movement is key in Robertson being able to play forward as often as he does.
We see an example of his ability from deeper areas here.
As Robertson takes possession of the pall he is positioned in the half-space. A supporting player is moving from behind him to make a run down the outside, in order to stretch the Leicester defensive block.
Robertson, however, does not take the option down the outside and instead sees a forward run on the far side, with Wijnaldum moving forward towards the edge of the penalty area. Robertson has the technical ability to find the space over the shoulder of Caglar Soyuncu and Wijnaldum is able to get a shot on goal.
This time we see an example with Robertson running down the outside in order to stretch the opposition and get in behind the defensive line.
In these circumstances, when moving at speed, it is normal for a player to try to whip the ball across the face of the defensive line into the area between them and the goalkeeper.
Instead, we see Robertson take his time and pause on the ball in order to allow the opposition defenders to get ahead of the ball.
He then plays a perfectly weighted pass back into the feet or Roberto Firmino as he makes the run onto the penalty area in the central area.
Running with the ball
The ability of any player in the modern game to run with the ball effectively is key.
Beating a player through a deep run or a dribble can open space elsewhere on the pitch as it forces an opposition player to move to close you down.
Robertson has a great burst of pace and the balance to allow him to move past players efficiently when moving at high speed. While his counterpart on the opposite side, Trent Alexander-Arnold, is much more of a passer we see Robertson looking to progress the ball through these incisive runs more often.
Here, we see Robertson moving from behind the play to support the man in possession.
He makes a run beyond the closest defensive player and allows the man in possession to move inside and then pass to the outside into the feet of Robertson.
From this point, the Scottish international full-back is capable of taking the ball and bursting into the penalty area. These runs create space centrally that the likes of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah can exploit when the ball is switched into the central spaces.
The opposition cannot defend effectively in the wide spaces and centrally at the same time and in attacking the wide areas in this way Robertson forces the defensive structure out of its comfort zone.
This time we see an example of Robertson taking possession of a loose ball as it breaks free in the centre of the pitch.
Robertson is initially defending back towards his own goal as he takes the ball. He immediately turns and looks to transition into the attacking phase for his team. He moves quickly and breaks through as two opposition players look to close him down and he breaks through to threaten the Spurs defensive line.
This capacity to drive forward with the ball is key in allowing Liverpool to move up the pitch.
Often we see Robertson as the player in possession as Liverpool push up the field to take more advanced positions on the pitch and this forces the opposition defensive block back.
The rise of Andrew Robertson from budding student to one of the key players for Liverpool and Scotland is nothing short of remarkable.
He has grown as a player both tactically and technically at each stage of his career but perhaps this improvement has been most notable through his time under Jurgen Klopp.
In terms of acting as one of the teams playmakers Robertson has continually impressed.
Indeed, now you could make the argument that Robertson is one of the most important players at the club.
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Liverpool superstar Andrew Robertson has had a more circuitous route to the top level than most others.