When re-appointed manager of the Scotland national team in February, the greatest selection dilemma facing Alex McLeish regarded the left-back position. The competition for places in this particular area was so intense that even Leeds United’s Barry Douglas, who provided more assists than anyone else in the English Championship last season while helping Wolves to promotion, couldn’t consistently force his way into the squad.
This headache originated four years ago, when Andrew Robertson left Dundee United for the Premier League with Hull City and Kieran Tierney made his debut for Celtic. Since then, the former has established himself as a key player at Liverpool, while the latter has earned covetous glances from all around Europe for his performances in Scotland. Both are exceptional players, and arguably their country’s two best footballers. Both are also left-backs by trade.
Robertson and Tierney threatened to become Scotland’s very own Steven Gerrard-Frank Lampard conundrum. It was impossible to fit both into their favoured position, so an alternative solution had to be found to get them on the pitch simultaneously.
The obvious answer was to play one on the left wing, though this would reduce the space ahead for the winger to attack into. Mitigating this inconvenience, McLeish’s predecessor, Gordon Strachan, frequently chose to field Tierney on the right of a back four. However, this created another issue – the Celtic man would have to cut in onto his preferred left foot every time he attacked down the flank.
McLeish thought slightly more radically than that. His answer to Scotland’s left-back dilemma was to dissolve the position altogether. Doing away with the back four that has generally been favoured in recent decades, he implemented a 3-5-2 system for the UEFA Nations League clash with Albania at Hampden in September. Within the new system, Tierney dropped back to left centre-back, while Robertson offered width as the left wing-back. McLeish’s change in shape worked, helping Scotland to a strong team performance and a crucial 2-0 win.
The Tierney-Robertson experiment was equally successful. Tierney, who has played on the left of a back three on rare occasions under Brendan Rodgers’ auspices at club level, brought good control, composure and attacking intent to the team’s build-up, while Robertson was able to make use of his outstanding crossing ability out on the flank. The duo combined well together, too.
When Robertson held his position out wide, Tierney would take the opportunity to make underlapping runs into the space available in the inside channel. Then, when Tierney decided the time was right to bomb on down the wing, Robertson would step inside to enable his teammate’s run. Their switching of positions and dynamism was impossible for Albania’s defence to deal with, leading to plenty of opportunities on that side of the pitch.
Just as the dilemma relating to these two players has been likened to a similar one faced by the English national team years ago, the solution to the problem was inspired by events transpiring south of the border.
When discussing the major influences behind his tactical switch, McLeish cited Antonio Conte’s Chelsea and Craig Brown’s Scotland before turning his attention to the current England setup, telling the Daily Record: “We’ve also taken inspiration from the Auld Enemy, with Gareth Southgate moving Kyle Walker into centre-back to accommodate two good players (Walker and Kieran Trippier) in the same team.”
Tierney is the Walker to Robertson’s Trippier – he is the more adaptable of the two, while Robertson, like his English equivalent, is at his best when his crossing capability is maximised. McLeish is lucky not only that the Celtic youngster is so versatile, but is also completely devoid of egotism. Few others of his talent level would be so willing to subordinate themselves to the needs of the collective.
“For me it’s all about whatever gives the team the best chance to qualify,” Tierney said when asked about his change of role at international level. “Getting forward is a massive part of my game…But I’m a defender, that’s my first job. And, at centre back, you’re defending a lot more. It’s about learning. I’m still very young. And I like that the manager trusts me to go in to centre-back and play my game. I don’t know if he’s changed the formation just to get me into the team, but I’m grateful.”
Scottish football can also be grateful. What could have become an era-defining tactical issue has been dealt with before Tierney and Robertson have even hit their individual peaks. Previously, the concern was that the inclusion of one would limit the other. Now, they are playing, and thriving, right next to one another.
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