Liverpool's left-back dilemma: How do Reds find Robertson's backup?
Left-back used to be Liverpool’s problem position.
For years, the Reds searched for solutions. Money was spent, signings were made, players were tried.
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The names roll off the tongue; Andrea Dossena, Emiliano Insua, Paul Konchesky, Jack Robinson, Jon Flanagan, Jose Enrique, Brad Smith, Aly Cissokho, Alberto Moreno.
Experiments, gambles and prospects who never quite got there. Square pegs in round holes, some of them.
The arrival of Andy Robertson in the summer of 2017 changed things. The Scot may not have been the most exciting signing nor the most expensive, but his impact in the three years since has been remarkable.
In fact Robertson has, in many ways, become the symbol of Jurgen Klopp’s side; energetic, aggressive, hungry, consistent and prolific in his output. A player taken from Hull City and moulded into a star - a European champion, a world champion, a Premier League champion.
At 26, Robertson is very much a part of the future at Anfield. He is rarely injured, his attitude is impeccable and he is, like the majority of Klopp’s star men, tied to a long-term contract.
Klopp adores him – “he’s maybe the best Scot here since Kenny Dalglish,” he said last year – and so do his team-mates. They know that without him, Liverpool are not the same side.
That, though, brings with it a fresh dilemma.
Namely, how do the Reds cope when he is not there? And how do they go about sourcing a backup?
Robertson has played in 70 of Liverpool’s last 74 Premier League matches and is, following the departure of Moreno on a free transfer last summer, the only specialist senior left-back in Klopp’s squad.
It emerged this week that Yasser Larouci, the teenager who made his professional debut in the FA Cup third-round win over Everton in January, is likely to move on this summer, having turned down the offer of a new contract.
Larouci is rated highly and has trained regularly with the senior squad at Melwood this season, but has come to the conclusion that he will need to leave in order to play regular first-team football. Under-23s football and the odd appearance in domestic cup competitions is not enough for the talented, ambitious 19-year-old. He knows he is not displacing Robertson any time soon.
So where does that leave Liverpool? They had hoped Larouci, or perhaps home-grown prospect Adam Lewis, could emerge as a natural understudy at left-back, in much the same way Neco Williams has with Trent Alexander-Arnold on the opposite flank.
Lewis, 20, signed a new long-term contract this week, but will almost certainly head out on loan next season. James Norris, another young Scouser, has made good strides, but only turned 17 in April and is some way off being considered for first-team contention.
Which leaves the ever-dependable James Milner as Robertson’s senior deputy.
Milner has performed admirably at full-back in the past – spending the entirety of the 2016-17 campaign there prior to Robertson’s arrival – but he will be 35 in January, and there is no doubt that Liverpool’s balance suffers without a natural left-footer on that side, particularly given the space Sadio Mane creates when moving infield. It is evident when Milner plays, and was when Williams started on the left against Brighton recently.
It still remains to be seen whether Liverpool look to dip into the transfer market at all ahead of next season. The signs are that it will be a low-key summer – though that has not stopped the rumour mill from working, of course – but Klopp has admitted that there could be opportunities later in the year, as the financial impact of Covid-19 becomes clearer.
“You have to be creative and we try to be creative,” he told reporters last month. “It is not a squad you have to change now and say 'OK, we need this position and this position'
“Yes, if you are a football supporter, you want a backup for him and him. Even if you are completely happy with everyone, you want backups! But what we want is to create our transfers internally.”
That may well be possible in some areas. Curtis Jones, for example, can step into Adam Lallana’s shoes in midfield, Williams looks an Alexander-Arnold clone at right back, while Rhian Brewster is an intriguing young forward option.
But left-back? Less likely.
Goal understands that Liverpool would be prepared to bring in defensive cover, but only for the right player.
Jamal Lewis of Norwich City is well thought of, and should be available following the Canaries’ relegation, while Lloyd Kelly was flagged up by the Reds’ scouting team prior to his move to Bournemouth last summer.
Kelly, the England U21 international, represents an interesting option given he can play at centre-back too.
Could that be the kind of “creative” solution Klopp was talking about? The Reds are likely to lose Dejan Lovren in the coming months, with Zenit St Petersburg leading the chase for the Croatia international, which would leave them light on senior options in the centre of defence too. A versatile signing would do no harm there.
Whatever happens, Klopp and his team have earned the right to be trusted. Their spending, or lack of, may concern supporters, who want to see their side strengthen from a position of strength, but the strategy has worked so far. The Reds’ form over the past three years cannot be questioned.
They have a history of pulling rabbits from the hat, too.
They did exactly that when they bought Robertson in 2017. Now they could do with finding his backup - whether internally or externally.