Hull City and Scotland left back Andrew Robertson is expected to join Liverpool shortly in an £8-10M deal, bringing the young defender with a year left on his current contract straight back up to the Premier League after he and his teammates were relegated to the Championship last season. It’s perhaps not the flashiest signing, but it’s one that adds needed depth and competition at one of the squad’s weak points and helps to ensure Jürgen Klopp has the funds to go after costlier top targets at other positions.
DOB: 11/4/94 (23) | Height: 5’10” (1.78 meters)
2016-17 Season: 39 appearances
1 goal, 3 assists
Strengths: Contrary to what one might expect when putting “Hull City” and “fullback” together, Robertson wants to play the game quickly, both with and without the ball. One only need to compare his return under manager Marco Silva in the second half of the season, when he scored a goal and three assists—the sum of his return for the season—and was arguably their standout player, and what came in the first half of it under Mike Phelan.
It wasn’t just registering a small handful of goals and assists, either. Robertson was a quicker player in the second half of the campaign; he pushed up the pitch more often and pressed to create chances in the final third. Or at least he did when given opportunities to, which for a side like Hull were relatively limited compared to what they will be at Liverpool and didn’t provide him with many opportunities to get caught too far out of position. The heightened risk as chances to foray forward increase will be something Robertson needs to adjust to, but he has shown a willingness at least to play football—both in the second half of last season with Hull and for Scotland, where he has earned a reputation as a player who likes to get up the pitch.
He prefers playing long balls along the ground rather than flinging in crosses, and despite playing for a side near the bottom of the table that played a fairly agrarian game in the first half of last season, over the season he averaged fewer cross attempts per game than Liverpool’s fullbacks while managing a similar number of completions. However, he will need to work on ball retention in the buildup phase, as he only managed a 76% pass completion rate in the league last season—worryingly low for a fullback not given that many opportunities to play aggressive, incisive passes and who wasn’t prone to hopeful hoofing when he got into the final third—but there’s the possibility that having better players around him will give him options and that his completion rate will improve naturally as a result.
On the defensive side, though he can sometimes be outclassed physically, he relies on his positioning to make up for it, liking to step in front of his man to intercept the ball—while Liverpool’s two first-choice fullbacks averaged around 50% more tackles than Robertson did over the course of the season, the Hull man intercepted the ball nearly 50% more often than either Milner or Clyne. His clearance rate is also solid, though perhaps unspectacular given playing for Hull gave him more chances to defend. More noteworthy is that when it came to being dribbled past, he was second only to Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand and was beaten that way less than once per match on average. It all adds up to a player more canny than dominant without the ball.
Weaknesses: No matter how positive a read one wants to give, it’s hard to entirely ignore just how bad Robertson, like the rest of the Hull squad, looked in the first half of last year. And then being the bright spot for half a year for a relegated side, or looking promising for them the year before in the Championship as he did, isn’t what you would tend to look for as a starting player for a top four side with aspirations towards silverware both in England and on the continent. That pass completion rate is worrying, too—even if having better players around him gives Robertson better options, it speaks to a recklessness in possession in the buildup phase that he will need to recalibrate.
And put simply, it’s a big, big step up for a player who has looked somewhere between decent and good in a bad side and at lower levels. Robertson may make that step up, but just because Klopp and the Liverpool scouting staff have identified him as a player with some talent and potential is no guarantee. A few bad games in quick succession could see Robertson quickly behind the eight ball, his minutes limited, and a more expensive option brought in to start on the left next summer—it could see him replacing Alberto Moreno and his role in the squad last season in a quite literal way.
Klopp and the management team know that, though. Robertson is being brought in as a player who may turn good, who may have a significant role to play at the club this season and moving forward. But unlike the signing of Mohamed Salah and the hoped-for signings of Naby Keïta and Virgil van Dijk, he isn’t being bought in with the expectation that he will walk into the club and lock down the starting left back job. For better or worse, fans need to take that into account when judging Robertson’s promise, talent, and eventual role.
Summation: Having just turned 23, there’s clearly some upside to his game, some raw talent that can be seen in fits and starts. There is at least the makings of a fullback who could fit well in Jürgen Klopp’s system at Liverpool. There should also be relatively little pressure for him to hit the ground running given his bargain fee and the presence of James Milner, who may leave some Liverpool fans a touch uneasy as first choice left back but who Klopp appears comfortable continuing with as starter.
It shouldn’t be presumed, though, that Robertson is incapable of winning the starting job. At the very least, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him handed domestic cup duties and the chance to appear in the odd league game against bottom-half opposition when Liverpool play three times in seven days due to European commitments. He will get chances, even if he’s the backup, and if he does well enough there’s just enough promise and possibility in Robertson to imagine him as a player who at least could be first choice for the club heading into 2018-19.
For around £8M, then—a bargain in the current market thanks to having just a year to go on his current contract—it would be churlish to complain overmuch about the deal. Robertson may not be a name to wow fans, but his signing helps the club to preserve funds for their top targets at centre half and in central midfield, and he’s not the tactically and technically basic defensive fullback one might expect to arrive from a relegated, low-scoring club like Hull.
At worst, he should provide a solid depth option on the left, a player who even if he doesn’t excel can do a job in limited duty. At best, he might do a great deal more than that—he might show that those hints of a progressive, technically capable player from the second half of last year, when surrounded by greater talent, can itself be turned into a top talent. In short, he could hit at Liverpool the way Ryan Bertrand—linked to the Reds in the past when many considered him too big a gamble—did with Saints. Given Milner’s presence, that’s a gamble Liverpool can afford to take this summer; and given Klopp’s desire to still bring in Van Dijk and Keïta, it’s a move that makes sense on the financial side.