The summer of 2017 was a transformative one for Liverpool, the club flexed their financial muscle to bring in Mohamed Salah, they struck a deal with RB Leipzig to guarantee them the services of Naby Keita in 12 months’ time, and all the groundwork was done to sign Virgil van Dijk in January. Michael Edwards also managed, somehow, to swap Kevin Stewart for Andrew Robertson. At the time, the signing of the Hull City man was used as a stick to beat Edwards and the recruitment team with by fans of rival clubs. Liverpool had claimed Champions League football with a final day victory over Middlesbrough and people expected bigger names with enhanced reputations to be arriving at Anfield, not players from relegated teams.
The fact Manchester City went out and spent £50million on Benjamin Mendy highlighted the levels between the two clubs, and was used as a reason to explain why the Reds wouldn’t rival Pep Guardiola’s side at the summit of the Premier League table.
Fast-forward to the present day, however, and it was Robertson impressing in the top of the table clash, with Mendy dropped from the City squad for tactical reasons. Liverpool romped to a 3-1 victory over the champions at Anfield, with visiting left-back Angelino having a torrid time in a makeshift back four for Guardiola’s side up against Salah. By comparison, Robertson shut down the left flank and served up one of the assists of the season, with his Egyptian team-mate the beneficiary of the perfectly weighted cross. This performance arrived just one week after he nodded home the equaliser, as Liverpool completed a turnaround late on against Aston Villa.
Truth be told, this is now just the norm for the Scotland international. Having initially waited for his chance in the Liverpool first-team, Robertson has been a mainstay in the backline for close to two years now. In that time, his side have reached back to back Champions League finals and they amassed 97 points in the league season. So far this term, they’ve claimed 34 of the 36 points on offer.
Since the switch to Merseyside, Robertson has 20 Premier League assists to his name. On average, he’s registering an assist for a team-mate in the English top-flight every 312 minutes. Trent Alexander-Arnold is often described as the creative hub for Liverpool, with some claiming he’s the right-back version of Kevin de Bruyne. But the No.26 is just as effective on the ball as the man on the opposite flank. What separates the pair is how they use the ball. Other full-backs for rival teams get into good areas and then aimlessly put the ball into the penalty area. Thierry Henry mentioned this during his interview with Jamie Carragher recently, as the Arsenal legend explained how he’d pull away into space in the area but the full-backs wouldn’t react to this, and instead just put crosses into traditionally dangerous areas instead of reaching the Frenchman, this is still the case. Though full-backs are now more comfortable in possession, some still refuse to take on responsibility in the final third. A measured cut-back is too much to ask when there’s the option to just cross the ball and then blame for the forward for not being there.
This is what would’ve caught the eye of the Liverpool recruitment team when analysing whether or not to make a move for Robertson. At Hull, he was used as a marauding wing-back, but he was just as comfortable underlapping. The Reds needed a full-back who was composed and competent on the ball, just as James Milner had been during the previous season. By showcasing his ability to drift inside and get involved, Robertson was inadvertently showing his suitability to this Liverpool side. This leads to the next positive when in these areas, the Scot would pick purposeful passes. He’d adapt the weight of balls into the box, he’d tweak the angles and the timings of when he released the pass. Robertson would look to make the most of the opportunity.
During his final season the Tigers, Robertson was averaging 0.64 key passes; he was also attempting 3.25 crosses per game, with 35 per cent of those finding a team-mate. However, he was averaging 6.32 passes into the final third, with 2.97 of those being passes into the penalty area.
For context, Aaron Wan-Bissaka for Crystal Palace last season averaged 4.73 passes into the final third, with 1.96 into the penalty area – and the Eagles were a much better side than Hull. That statistic alone highlights the importance of Robertson to the way the Tigers looked to attack. Robertson’s heat map for this season shows he’s seeing, as expected, a lot more of the ball in the final third. Most of his statistics have doubled with the left-footed maestro averaging 1.35 key passes, 6.09 crosses and finding a team-mate with 40 per cent of them. He’s playing 7.61 passes into the final third, with 6.34 of those into the area.
At Hull, he could only impact the game during odd moments due to the way they played and their standing in the league. But he showed more than enough to suggest he could adapt that part of his game to suit a more possession-based side. That’s exactly what he’s done, Liverpool needed a full-back who had the ability to play passes into the area. Not only that, though, they needed a full-back who had the mindset to take risks around the box in order to potentially carve out opportunities. With Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Salah all lurking in the box due to the narrow shape Klopp used, the recruitment team on Merseyside knew what was required from the players in the wide areas.
Many players who find themselves in the positions Robertson does would opt to pass to a midfielder, shifting the creative burden onto them. But with the Scotland international adopting that role for a struggling Hull side, there were signs he’d do the same for a more balanced Reds team. That is exactly what happened, and what continues to happen. Liverpool have made some game-changing signings over the years but getting Robertson for £8million can be considered in a similar vein to the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Fabinho. It’s the one best highlights the work done by Edwards, Ian Graham and the recruitment team.