When it comes to left-backs, there is currently a rich array of talent in Europe. Once upon a time, the position didn’t command respect and a handful of players probably had their hearts set on other positions. I started off as a left-winger, but bit by bit, I started moving backwards. After playing as a left-sided midfielder, I eventually landed up as a center back for Shamrock Rovers, which was my first club as a professional footballer.
At the time, there was a crisis at left-back and that was that for me! I made the position my own and was signed by Liverpool in 1983. I quickly learned that I was better at pinching the ball, tackling opposition players and running forward with the ball when it was time to do so rather than take on a defender and outsmart him - my game was devoid of all that - so it all worked out for the best!
I’m not listing players in any particular order and I also have to say that the top-five left-backs in the world could look a lot different two or three months into the new season. The likes of David Alaba, Jordi Alba, Ferland Mendy, Raphael Guerreiro, Lucas Digne, Ben Chilwell and Marcelo are some of the other contestants who can break into the list at some point in the forthcoming season, but the five that I’ve named are up there with the very best at the moment.
Andy Robertson | Liverpool, Scotland
Andy Robertson has an irrepressible air about him that is absolutely infectious. His spirit and enthusiasm clearly rubs off on the rest of his teammates and he sets the tone with his work rate. What I love about him is that amongst all his relentless running and energy, there is a tough little character in play who has a sense of bravery about him.
I’m not advocating that he should slap players in the head, but he did that to Lionel Messi in the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League semifinal at Anfield. He was pumped and it was all part of the atmosphere on the night, but he showed that he’s a tough little guy who won’t back off from a scruffle. Be it his cheekiness or his audacity, you want these kinds of characters in your team.
As a player, you set high standards for yourself and try to maintain them. Robertson has hit a standard of excellence for Liverpool over the past few seasons and has established himself as a brilliant footballer. He may not be the out-and-out leader in the team, but he makes himself heard and has a sense of reliability about him that you’d love as a manager.
You can’t reinvent the game as a full-back, but Robertson is a model of consistency, so much so that you’re surprised when he doesn’t excel. I just hope he continues to do all the right things on and off the pitch to take care of his body, as injuries inevitably seem to catch up with everyone. Liverpool need him and Trent Alexander-Arnold to go at it from the get-go if they are to reclaim their Premier League crown from Manchester City.
Lucas Hernandez | Bayern Munich, France
Lucas Hernandez unfortunately has a history of injuries and in my opinion, that’s largely down to the fact that he’s the best defender amongst the five that I’ve named. He’s less interested in his desire to move forward and is very conscious of the fact that his primary job is to defend and keep things tight at the back. There’s a no-nonsense tenacity about him that some of the others lack and he tackles with as much bite as the game allows him to.
Lucas rarely gets caught out of possession and has that willingness to go into tackles with all his might, so he leaves himself more open to injuries. I remember watching him and thinking he’s got a feistiness about him - he’s got a strong attitude and is happy to get involved in the dark arts to bail his side out of tricky situations. There’s not a lot that gets past him as he’s always mindful of the fact that his role in the team is to defend.
The only aspect of his game I dislike is his tendency to get a bit theatrical when he gets tackled - he goes from being a mean defender to a silly victim at times. That aside, I’ve always liked Lucas Hernandez and he’s a massive strength in the team, be it for Bayern Munich or France. He’s a tough defender and the kind of player who will never let you down.
His younger brother, Theo, is a fantastic left-back as well, but he needs to develop a little bit more to be considered amongst the best players in the world in his position.