Tierney, Robertson and Scotland's left-sided opportunity, via Bielsa.
Owing to a certain Iron Lady, the majority of Scotland has always been left-leaning, so it's perhaps no surprise to see a couple of iron-clad mindsets emerge from working-class boys at the centre (left) of footballing discourse regarding our National Team. Two captains. Two leaders. Two players who have a legitimate case to be regarded as world-class in their respective positions and both still to reach the peak of their careers. Magic! Scotland have finally got that glimmer of gold shining on! Only as tragic, Caledonian-tinged irony would have it, these generational talents both happen to play the same position - or do they?
Well... yes, yes they do.
Sorry about that. Only, as this is A\M, and we always look towards a positive solution, shifting the language from 'problem' to 'opportunity' is far more than mere semantics. It's the starting place for all positive change, and you'd best get on board because it's certainly how Steve Clarke will be viewing it. Therefore, a better question might be; what makes each of these players unique and how can they complement one another?
Now we're talking.
If you missed A\M's feature on Andy Robertson, we asserted he is good at many things and that the old narrative 'good going forward but can't defend' has been usurped by the Scotland captain's continual excellence as 1/5 of the meanest defence in the Premier League. That said, the qualities which come most easily to him are predominantly attacking in nature, as recently displayed in the closing games of the season.
Robertson excels at bursting forward, with pace, into space between the opposition defence and midfield, or as we've frequently seen, to the byline where his delivery is exemplary. If you back off, his delivery from deep, and increasingly from dead-balls, is equally as threatening. This 100mph approach to purposeful end-product is nauseating for opposition managers (see Mourinho), meaning subsequently that defending players haven't yet found a consistent solution in thwarting his game; culminating in back-to-back seasons where his assists have been in double figures.
The numbers in this regard are well documented so there is no need to cover them here, suffice to say; it is generally accepted that the style of play the Liverpool full-backs have engineered under Jurgen Klopp has reinvented the modern-day position. He really is that good.
It is then with a huge degree of respect that we say on the other hand, or perhaps the same hand but budged over a wee bit, is Kieran Tierney.
The former Celtic man moved down South with as big a reputation as I can recall for a Scottish player - full of excitement and expectation. Social media was filled with hooped comments detailing to Arsenal fans just how good the player they had pursued for two years was. Those of us who don't support Celtic but follow Scottish football nodded along, I even saw more than a few Rangers fans wishing him well and extolling his ability, relieved that their rivals were their best player down.
All this is to say, the recent glowing press he has been receiving only serves as a confirmation of what everyone in Scotland already knew - Kieran Tierney is an exceptionally good footballer, perhaps generationally good, and it's not a daft argument to hear him spoken about in the same breath as Robertson.
What this article is not, is saying who is the better player. That is, as my mother would say, 'about as useful as a chocolate teapot' - looks like it might be worthwhile, but holds no utilitarian value and very quickly turns messy. So, perfect for Twitter then.
Rather, in beginning to answer our original question of how they can complement one another for the National Team, we can start with what we've already exposed as Scotland's strengths under Steve Clarke. Namely, a fit, in-form John McGinn (or perhaps Stuart Armstrong?) scores goals and these occur most often from the not-quite-9 position just behind the selfless 'actual 9', whether that be McBurnie, Shankland or Griffiths. Furthermore, as we saw in Euro Qualifying and the Nations League, most of our goals, by anyone, occurred from the left side. (You can read about all this in our prior feature, here)
It's not hard to see why; for just beneath Kevin De Bruyne and the aforementioned Liverpool duo in the Premier League assists chart over the last couple of seasons is still, remarkably, Ryan Fraser - a mainstay in Club and National setups until recent events off the pitch.
Whether it be Tierney, Robertson or Fraser, one thing is certain, Scotland won't struggle to create chances moving forward.
Tierney might not yet be hitting the numbers of his contemporaries, but he has arguably a better delivery than both. Left-back is where he is at his best and in glimpsing the chances he has created (in a debut season punctuated by injury) we're reminded of just how good he is as an attacking full-back.
If I was KT, I'd be ragin'!
Latterly, he has also delivered MOTM performances whilst playing left of a back three and at wing-back. As most players cannot do this to such a high standard, it would be remiss of Steve Clarke, and us, to ignore this flexibility as we can glean some very important information from Tierney's pliable nature.
Against Liverpool, we saw that Robertson and Tierney can play on the same pitch, albeit on opposing sides, as Arsenal won 2-1 to continue their revival under Mikel Arteta.
Responsible for Liverpool's assist that day (see above), Robertson proved once again why he is unstoppable as an attacking force, yet it was perhaps Tierney's display at the left side of a defensive three which was most hopeful for the watching Scotland fan. Social media certainly seemed to cement this popular observation.
In fact, both players have closed out the Premier League season as arguably the best players in their respective teams, with solid defensive performances (see below for Tierney's against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final) highlighted by excellent attacking contributions to play (Robbo: 5 assists & 1 goal; Tierney: 2 assists & 1 goal).
That Tierney produced these displays and figures whilst changing, often mid-game, between three different positions is astounding, and it is here that the player's respective talents begin to diverge.
Whether you like your job or not, I'd like you to consider it for a moment. Hopefully, you are happy in it, and hopefully, you know your role more than when you first started.
Presumably, following a successful interview in which you managed to outline to your employers how you could meet the desired roles and responsibilities of the post, you have gone on to exhibit that criteria - becoming more at home, and better at your job each day. Something no doubt made easier by getting to know your boss's intentions and colleagues' personalities and strengths along the way.
Tierney's impressive audition was performed on the pitch wearing his beloved green and white hoops. Arsenal admired from afar and pursued with interest since around the time of the young man's inclusion into the Champions League team of the group stages, at 20. No mean feat whilst playing for a defensive Celtic team against Neymar, Mbappe and Robben.
Arsenal recognised what Scottish fans were becoming increasingly aware of; Kieran Tierney wasn't just the best left-back at Celtic - he was the best right-back and centre-half too. He was also their best crosser, could burn defenders with ease, rarely lost possession, often out-muscled opponents, timed his tackles perfectly, and crucially, showed a tactical intelligence which maximised all these attributes into one attractive package.
Following injury, Tierney the employee has now settled into his London surroundings, understanding more his manager's intentions. Gradually his teammates are beginning to see these same qualities, with fans touting him as a future captain.
IW: 'One that I am very excited about is Kieran Tierney... he's somebody that I think is going to be magnificent for us.'
MA: 'I totally agree... his attitude, his commitment, his willing[ness], it's incredible. I think he is going to bring something special to us.'
- Ian Wright in conversation with Mikel Arteta
It has been the stand-out performances against the two best teams in the league, that have shown us glimpses of how Tierney might operate successfully alongside Robertson for Scotland, in particular; the FA Cup Semi-Final against Man City.
Playing as left of a back three, you'd be forgiven for thinking his attacking outlet was suppressed, and whilst there is some truth to this, on repeat viewing, I was amazed at how often he managed to burst into space to facilitate attacks. In fact, Tierney was responsible for the incisive pass that broke the lines in the build-up to Aubameyang's first against City, before providing a superbly weighted ball of his own for the second.
Breaking the lines with close control and pace
Perfect positioning, pace to burn and poised to intercept
Goal 1: Hugging the touchline as centre-half, eye-of-the-needle pass taking out 3 players
Goal 2: 'Beautiful, just beautiful'... as Lemonjelly once said.
Defensively, he rarely missed a tackle. He was never out-sprinted. He was diligent in position and knew when to pick a pass or clear his lines. A constant communicator, Tierney was often seen screaming at teammates to get into position. A relentless competitor, he simply would not let his focus drop. It was a top, top, performance - and it's becoming the norm. The conundrum for Arteta is a familiar one for followers of Tierney - he's not just Arsenal's best left-back, but their best centre-back too. A point that did not escape the media's attention, nor that of his manager.
Reporter: 'Can you just talk to us about Kieran Tierney?... He's fitted in really well, now he's fit, to either a back 3, or at left-back, going forward he seems a real player.'
MA: 'I think I can talk [on behalf] of all the staff, we are delighted with him. He is a joy of a kid. He always wants to do more. He always wants to train harder... We really like him. We really appreciate everything that he is doing since we joined. For me, he's a player who is a really good role model for any player in the squad.'
- Mikel Arteta, Aston Villa pre-match presser, July 2020
Can we expect him to provide that same blend of defensive discipline and attacking outlet in the dark blue of Scotland? Well, let's consider how that might look. Assuming that Scotland move to a back three, with Tierney on the left-side of that trio - who would be his colleagues in front of the goalkeeper?
Liam Cooper should be there, and not only because he is now 'a Premier League player' as the old argument goes. The captain of promoted Leeds United has shown his tactical intelligence throughout a sustained period in a winning team, under huge pressure. As captain, he does more than simply 'gee everyone up' in the changing room. How can I say this? Well, as anyone the least bit familiar with Marcelo Bielsa teams knows, the Argentinian is relentless in his devotion to football and the outworking of ridiculously well-formed tactics during the game. Cooper is his leader on the pitch and to do this well requires an incredible ability to understand how to implement Bielsa's famous brand of meticulous flowing football (not an oxymoron). This bodes well for Tierney, why? Well, look at how Arteta played against Liverpool and City. As a disciple of Guardiola, himself a devotee of Bielsa, there is a common thread - and simply put it is this; players must be able to play to their strengths, flexibly, within a regimented system.
'He is very strict. It's like being in the military. We don't play games. It is tactics, tactics, tactics, and fitness.'
- Mateusz Klich (Leeds Utd and Poland midfielder) on Marcelo Bielsa
Flexible. Regimented. Two words that are not often found together, but that great teams have always fused. Think of your favourite successful footballing side. Whether it is Sacchi's Milan or Zidane's Madrid, you'll see both of these elements at play. Whilst Baresi and Maldini were busy keeping clean sheets, Van Basten and Gullit were scoring outrageous overhead kicks, or so the narrative goes. Only that's not the whole story, because watch any of Baresi or Maldini's highlights and you'll see two players who frequently broke the lines of defence and attack - with Baresi often waltzing out of defence much like Alan Hansen used to - picking a pass and continuing his run. This just isn't what centre-halves are traditionally meant to do, but boy was it effective. When Kieran Tierney plays there, as a ball-playing, forward-thinking centre-half, he is in good company, and similarly, so is Liam Cooper. Bielsa might be a 'military tactician' but there is tremendous freedom to be had there in playing to your strengths, and what are Scotland's strengths? In considering Robertson, Tierney and Fraser, you'd have to say pace; and mindful of our strengths in midfield (Gilmour, McGinn, McTominay, Armstrong, Fleck, McGregor), passing and possession should increasingly be our aim.
'Bielsa gets his teams to play with ferocious pace, despite also favouring a possession based game. This requires huge technical skill from his squad, and he frequently plays midfielders in central defensive roles to ensure they have the ball skills to pass out from the back. Bielsa also uses full-backs as centre-backs because he thinks they are better able to carry the ball.'
- Tactics Explained: Marcelo Bielsa, Tifo, 2017
Now, admittedly this is a big jump, but consider the perks of such a system; all of a sudden, Scotland could have 3/4 or 3/5 positions covered at the back by Premier League defenders, two of which are world-class and three of which are familiar with very complex systems. In other words, flexible and regimented could become our future.
As Scots, we're simply not used to this. We're not used to being so adventurous, and it takes a huge jump even for established mindsets within football to grasp - this is why Bielsa has had so many run-ins with previous clubs. However, and it is a huge 'however' - when it works, as proven with disciples Guardiola, Pochettino, Arteta, and now the old master himself - it is a joy to watch, and it is a winning formula.
- Image courtesy of Tifo
You'll notice that Bielsa employs two formations that his sides sometimes switch between in-game. This is where we require some (more) lateral thinking. Out of possession, let's say Scotland employ the 4-2-3-1, with Tierney as the left-sided centre-half and Liam Cooper on the right. As soon as we recover possession, McTominay drops between them, enabling the fast counter that Bielsa favours. With Tierney bursting left, alongside Robertson, you now have room for Fraser beyond as he pushes into an advanced winger role. This allows for triangles to be formed all over the pitch as the ball is bounced in and off our strength in midfield (Fleck, McGinn, Armstrong, Gilmour etc). It's just a thought, but it's not too far away from what we observed in Tierney's performance against Man City - defensively sound but able to play to his strengths. Flexible yet regimented.
Before someone says 'aye, but we're Scotland, we cannae dae that', let's look at it another way. Remember the excellent Chile team that appeared from nowhere to international success at the World Cup 2010? Well, that was Bielsa. His system can work at international level, and to great effect. They might counter with 'that's because they had the players to play in their natural positions' - but this is simply not true. Cardiff superstar Gary Medel played centre-half in the 'McTominay role' we cited earlier. Take a question like, 'how can Robertson be expected to play as a winger with Tierney behind him in the 3-3-1-3 formation?'; would it help to know that even Arturo Vidal was convinced to play this role as they not only qualified for the tournament but performed so heroically in South Africa? Robertson is far nearer a winger than Vidal ever could be, Cooper already plays under Bielsa, Tierney is playing under a similar system under Arteta. We are much closer to elite-level complexity than any of us might think. I might well be going off the deep end with this one, but what better way to mark the day of Tierney's first FA Cup Final. Whether he lines up at left centre-half, left wing-back or left-back today, watch his willingness and aptitude to employ his manager's tactics. If you see him burst from the back 3 to the touchline, then I'll be smiling at that point and feel free to join me. We might well be going off the deep end, but if it means we get Robertson and Tierney in the same team, playing to their respective strengths, then I'm all in.
Tierney and Scotland's future won't be set in stone under a regimented 4-4-2 with an established left-back and Robertson on the bench. There will be far more flexibility than that.