Kieran Tierney has played a centre-back cum left back hybrid
How do you solve the problem of having two world-class left-backs? Play without a traditional left-back at all. It might sound counter-intuitive, but that is the approach taken by Scotland manager Steve Clarke, who has unearthed a system that makes the most of the considerable talents of Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney.
For some time, the left-back situation was regarded as a perverse curse for the national team. After all, what are the odds of Scotland producing two genuinely top-class operators, the best two players in their squad, but doing so in the same position?
The atmosphere in the Scottish camp is said to be buoyant ahead of their opening Euro 2020 match against the Czech Republic, and Tierney and Robertson are firmly established as two leaders of the team.
The key to maximising the ability of both has been Clarke’s three-man defence. In this shape Tierney has excelled as the left-sided centre back, while Robertson plays as a more attacking wing-back. But Tierney has the freedom to overlap and underlap from his defensive position, supporting Robertson in attack whenever he can. When Tierney pushes on, Robertson sits back. When Robertson needs options, Tierney provides back-up.
It helps that they get on well, on and off the pitch. Robertson is Scotland’s captain, a natural leader and a serial winner with Liverpool. Tierney is another strong personality and a ferocious competitor.
Over the years, the comparisons between the two have been relentless. Last summer, Robertson said he and Tierney were “sick to death” of being constantly measured against each other. Such discussions were frustrating primarily because they were never-ending, but also because the two left-backs are different players with different strengths.
Scotland captain Andy Robertson
The beauty of Clarke’s system is that it allows both of them to focus on what they do best. Robertson is arguably the standout attacking left-back in Europe, surging forward for Liverpool and delivering immaculate crosses. Tierney takes a similar approach in attack for Arsenal but, fundamentally, he is the more defensive-minded option.
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The primary objective for Tierney, in any game or training session for club or country, is to defend well. The 24-year-old’s intensity has at times been a problem for him in the past, contributing to injury issues that have restricted him to just 21 international appearances. His competitive nature has also ruffled the feathers of more pampered players at club level.
But this is just what you get with Tierney. Aggressive, fierce, driven. They are good qualities for a makeshift central defender to have, and there have been games when Tierney has appeared to enter a combat mode of sorts, flying into tackles and blocks as his team comes under pressure.
The nature of Tierney’s character means that he will happily play anywhere for his manager. For his country he has featured at left-back, left wing-back, right-back, centre-back in a four and centre-back in a three. Robertson is less defensively versatile, although he more than makes up for it with his attacking incision.
On the pitch, the two left-backs are crucial to Scotland’s balance as a team. Off it, they help to fuel the togetherness in the squad.
Roberton goes out of his way to make the young players feel comfortable. Tierney, meanwhile, is so entwined with the national team that he has previously travelled enormous distances just to be with the squad for away games, even though he and the coaches knew he was not fit enough to play.
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Remarkably, the list of talented Scottish left-backs does not end with the two Premier League stars. Aaron Hickey, a 19-year-old, is playing for Bologna in Serie A. Josh Doig, also 19, was named the Scottish Football Writers’ Association Young Player of the Year following his breakthrough at Hibernian.
Perhaps a time will come when Clarke must find a way to incorporate three, or even four, left-backs in one team. For now, though, there are only two to focus on. Robertson and Tierney, two of Scotland’s finest, playing on the same wavelength and thriving in the same team.