Graham Ruthven: Robertson v Tierney is Scotland’s Gerrard-Lampard conundrum

Scotland now has two star left-backs, but the question for Alex McLeish is how to make the best use of both Liverpool’s Robertson and Celtic’s Tierney…


The irony has not been lost in Scottish football fans.

Not for a generation has Scotland produced a truly exceptional young player and now they have two… who play in the same position.

Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney are the vanguard of Scottish football’s next generation, with the former already proven at the top of the game and the latter destined to join him there sooner or later.

But how can Alex McLeish fit both players into the national team? After all, Robertson and Tierney are Scotland’s two best players and so it would be wasteful for one to be left on the bench.

This has led to McLeish, and Gordon Strachan before him, shoehorning both into the same side even if the system doesn’t necessarily allow it.

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Tierney was used at right back on occasion during the last World Cup qualification, with McLeish asking the 21-year-old to play on the left side of a back three against both Belgium last week and against Albania in Scotland’s Nations League opener on Monday.

In the latter instance, the ploy worked, with Robertson and Tierney combining down the left wing to give the Dark Blues a highly effective attacking outlet.

Defensively, though, doubts remain over whether Robertson and Tierney can play in the same structure, with Belgium brutally exposing the space between the two players in their 4-0 win at Hampden last Friday night.

Against Albania, Scotland were dominant enough for this not to be an issue, but against higher calibre opponents the structural deficiencies between Robertson as a left wing back and Tierney as a left-sided centre back could be a glaring weak spot.

This problem, how to fit Robertson and Tierney into the same starting lineup, has become Scotland’s very own Steven Gerrard-Frank Lampard conundrum.

For years, in the midst of England’s so-called ‘Golden Generation,’ Sven Goran Eriksson struggled to find a formation and a system that got the best out of his two best central midfielders. McLeish must now know how the Swede felt.

With Robertson now Scotland captain, and McLeish’s first pick at left back, Tierney is the one being suppressed. For Celtic, he is a force of nature, a left back who can influence a game like few left backs can.

For Scotland, though, Tierney has to stifle his natural game.

“I’m sure if Andy was asked to play another position he would also do it with a smile on his face,” the 21-year-old reasoned when pressed for his true feelings on having to play around Robertson.

“The game has changed. In different formations, maybe in a back four, you can be a bit more defensive. But playing in a five, you can go yourself. Andy is brilliant at that, he’s been doing it great for Liverpool. Whether I play centre back, right back, or left back, they’re all different. You just need to adapt. It’s no bad thing to be able to play a variety of positions.”

Some have pondered whether the two players could be used on the same wing in a system based on a flat back four. It could be argued that Tierney is in fact the more natural full back and that if one of the two is to be played as a winger further up the pitch it should be Robertson.

It’s not unheard of for left backs to mature into left wingers over time – look at a certain Welshman who plays in Spain for a precedent.

Maybe Scots shouldn’t be so quick to complain about their Gerrard-Lampard-esque dilemma at left back.

Scotland has waited a generation, maybe longer, for two talents as bright as Robertson and Tierney.

That they play in the same position is a mere inconvenience. What matters is that they have them to enjoy in the first place.

Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned from England’s issues with Gerrard and Lampard – so much time was spent debating how to get more from them that few appreciated just how great they were.

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