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Why Did Liverpool Sign Andy Robertson

ndwuma
By ndwuma | self meida writer
Published 7 days ago - 0 views

What do you remember about the 2016-17 Hull City team? Not what do you know now, but what can you recall. For a lot of you, it’s probably nothing. That’s four seasons ago, and the team got relegated with a minus 43 goal differential. Why waste brain space on any of that, or any of what I’m about to describe. For others, it’s the black and orange sad tiger stripes. And for some, it’s probably a handful from a roster full of That Guys: Sam Clucas, Ryan Mason, Ahmed Elmohamady, Curtis Davies, Michael Dawson, Robert Snodgrass, Jake Livermore, Adama Diomande, Lazar Markovic, Andrea Rannochia, Oumar Niasse, Omar Elabdellaoui, David Meyler and Shaun Maloney. If you were an unspectacular journey man from the British Isles or a briefly-touted prospect from elsewhere, chances are you played for Hull City in 2016 or 2017.

If you were both, you also played for Hull and were Tom Huddlestone the man with the perfect right foot. Also, one of my dad’s favorite players.


The team was also managed by a hilarious succession of names. Steve Bruce resigned before the season started; he now coaches Newcastle. Bruce was replaced by Mike Phelan, who was then fired in January, he’s now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s right hand man at Manchester United. Phelan was replaced by Marco Silva, who resigned after the season. And Silva was replaced by Leonid Slutsky, who left the club in December 2017, he manages Vitesse in the Netherlands now, but also lost his job as a TV pundit during the 2018 World Cup because, well, here’s what Hull Live says about it.

Anyway. When it comes to this Hull team I mainly remember Liverpool losing to them, 2-0. And I also remember Harry Maguire, a kind of husky, dribble happy center back I’d never seen before. Maguire, of course, went on to play for England at the World Cup, and he’s now back together with Phelan at Manchester United. One thing I do not remember, the presence of a 22 year old Andy Robertson, who has since become one of the best left backs on the planet for Liverpool.

Liverpool signed Robertson for £8 million after the 2016-17 season, and as far as I can tell, the move didn’t even warrant its own  and was instead covered in a transfer roundup piece that mentioned a couple other deals for players like Lucas Leiva and Bruno Martins Indi. Given the small fee and the lack of media coverage around the deal, I don’t think anyone expected Robertson to be this good, and I’m not sure many people were even convinced that he would become a starter at Liverpool.

However, Liverpool are just about as good as any club at projecting and expecting things.

The most publicly available of the Liverpool brain trust. When the host, Stephen Dubner, asked him who his favorite kinds of players were, he said, players who shine through in the data but don’t naturally shine through for your typical football fan. And then he went on to cite Robertson as an example.

Andy Robertson’s problem was his background as much as anything. So he only started playing English Premier League football maybe at the age of 22. And he played for Hull City, which was not a very good football team. They got relegated from the Premier League. And he was the best young full-back in Britain at the time. He was a really strange case of a really attacking full-back playing in a really poor defensive team.

We try to take whatever action a player does on a pitch whether it’s a pass or a shot or a tackle if you’re a defender and ask the question, What was this team’s chance of scoring a goal before this action happened. And then, What was this team’s chance of scoring a goal after that action happened. And we call that goal probability added.

The thing that I’m really obsessed about is the risk reward pay-off of passes. Some of the best passers in the game have some of the lowest pass-completion percentages in the game. And that’s because the risk reward pay-off is very, very skewed in football. So it’s very easy to massage your statistics and get a high pass completion percentage by playing very conservative passes that do nothing for your team’s chance of scoring a goal.

The passes I really love are the passes that go in behind the opposition defence, that take four or five defenders out of the game. Those passes are really hard to make. Someone who gets those passes correct half the time would be a world class attacking midfielder.

So, my question: Was there something obvious in the data that made Robertson stand out?

First, a video with music no one wants to hear.


Among fullbacks who played at least 19 matches in the 2016-17 Premier League season, Robertson is one of nineteen players who completed at least one pass into the penalty area and two passes into the attacking third per 90 minutes. Among those players, Robertson was last in penalty area entries, while James Milner, the player Robertson would soon replace, was first. Robertson was also one of only two fullbacks in the league to average at least one dribble, one tackle, and one interception per 90 minutes. The other player, though, was Swansea City’s Kyle Naughton, a player whose name could easily fit on that earlier list of forgettable That Guys. Lower the restrictions a bit, and a handful of other uninspiring names pop up.

Now, Hull were an awful team. And so I think the fact that Robertson produced at a respectable rate within a dysfunctional system at least made him an intriguing prospect, if not a nailed-on future superstar or even a likely full-time player at a Top Six team. At the very least, there aren’t any red flags.

But the deeper you dig, the better Robertson starts to look. There are the passes he attempted more frequently than the average Premier League fullback. Similar passes are grouped together by color.

Long balls up the sideline and into the attacking third. Early, angled crosses into the box. Those are the exact kind of passes that Graham mentions. Robertson rated out as above-average (59) in passes toward the goal and link up play (60), which consists of all the other passes in a game. His dribbling, which rates a player’s ability to progress the ball with his feet, was even better (89). Smarter Scout’s database goes back to the beginning of the 2016-17 season, and not a single fullback in Europe’s Big Five leagues has rated as above average in those three facets of the game other than Robertson in his one PL season with Hull. He hasn’t even done it with Liverpool!

There are usually trade offs between (1) types of passing and (2) passing and dribbling, you either do more of one or the other. But he managed to be above average in all three.

Except, this all might just be over complicating things. Forget the algorithms or the number of passes into the box. There were two simpler things about Robertson that made him stand out. He played for a relegated team, and Liverpool, especially, have found value in players from teams that just got booted from the Premier League. Their reputations and their price tags take a hit, no matter how well they’ve performed. In addition to Robertson, Liverpool acquired Giorginio Wijnaldum from Newcastle and Xherdan Shaqiri from Stoke City to varying degrees of success.

Football clubs typically don't sign players from teams that were relegated because they are seen to be failure. As such, those players tend to be undervalued in the Big Five leagues between 2016 and 2018, players who were bought from relegated teams saw their values more than double at their new club compared to the fee paid.

Well it’s a combo of two things, actually. Robertson’s age and his playing time. He was 22 when the season began, and his 2,736 minutes were more than all but one Hull player. According to Swoboda, Leo Dubois of Nantes was the only fullback younger than Robertson who played more minutes across the Big Five leagues during the 2016-17 season. Dubois now plays for Lyon, and he started for France in their most recent competitive match.

Dubois is featuring for the defending world champs, and Robertson just won the Champions League.

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