Trent Alexander-Arnold has a big week ahead when, once again, the Liverpool defender will find himself as one of the most analysed footballers in the world. Every pass, tackle and run he makes against Real Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday and against Leeds United at Elland Road next Monday will be dissected and scrutinised to a level that only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo can empathise with.
But maybe the debate about his skill set for the right-back role is missing the bigger issue. Perhaps it is time to think about Alexander-Arnold being deployed elsewhere on the pitch, such as in midfield, in order to play to his strengths and diminish his weaknesses.
The problem for Alexander-Arnold is that his performances at right-back lend themselves to such a laser-like focus, with Saturday’s 90 minutes in the 2-1 win over Aston Villa giving his supporters and detractors ample evidence to back up their diametrically opposed opinions of the 22-year-old.
Take his winning goal, for instance. It was a shot straight out of the Steven Gerrard textbook. A crucial late winner that beat the goalkeeper with pace and precision as the ball curled into the bottom corner from 20 yards out. But seconds later, Anwar El Ghazi missed the chance to equalise for Aston Villa with a header in the Liverpool penalty area after Alexander-Arnold failed to spot the danger and, twice in the build-up to his winning goal, the 22-year-old was beaten easily down the right flank by Villa winger Trezeguet.
All of this, the good and the bad, happened in front of the watching England manager. Gareth Southgate triggered what became a national debate last month by dropping Alexander-Arnold from the squad for the World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland. Southgate overlooked Alexander-Arnold in favour of three other right-backs — Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James — on the basis that, “I don’t think [Alexander-Arnold] has played at the level that he found in the last couple of years.”
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, meanwhile, questioned Southgate’s decision by saying Alexander-Arnold has been “the standout right-back in world football for the last two seasons at least.” Having witnessed his match-winning contribution against Villa on Saturday, Klopp paid tribute to the defender’s reaction to his England omission before adding, “The most important thing is we stop talking about it.”
Klopp can hope for an end to the Alexander-Arnold debate, but Southgate’s decision to drop him from the England squad, and leave him facing the prospect of missing out on Euro 2020, ensures that every game will now result in the player’s performance being pored over by fans and pundits alike.
In a nutshell, the problem with Alexander-Arnold is that he gives Liverpool (and England) an incredible attacking outlet with his delivery from the right side of the pitch — 29 Premier League assists since the start of the 2018-19 season — but he is also proving to be vulnerable defensively, as highlighted against Villa and in the 3-1 defeat in last week’s quarterfinal first leg in Madrid.
With Virgil van Dijk fit, Alexander-Arnold’s defensive shortcomings were less visible at Liverpool due to the Dutch defender’s ability to provide a safety net with his reading of the game, but with Van Dijk missing the majority of this season with a cruciate ligament injury, Alexander-Arnold has too often burst forward without considering the consequences of leaving a gap at the back. It is his defensive weaknesses that prompted former Manchester United and England right-back Gary Neville to say that England’s opponents at Euro 2020 would prefer to go up against Alexander-Arnold than Southgate’s other options.
“I’m saying to myself, who are England going to be playing? Germany, Belgium, France, Portugal,” Neville said. “Who is [Alexander-Arnold] going to be playing against? [Eden] Hazard, [Kylian] Mbappe, [Leroy] Sane, [Diogo] Jota, [Cristiano] Ronaldo. Who do they want to play against? James, Walker or Trent? They’ll say, ‘I’ll let Trent go forward, he’ll leave space in behind me. I’ll have Trent.'”
As Southgate has shown with his squad selection, he has alternative options at right-back, so Alexander-Arnold has become dispensable for England. It is a different scenario at Liverpool, who don’t have a top-quality replacement in that position. But perhaps Alexander-Arnold’s development is being limited at full-back and a move into midfield could take his game to another level. If he became a dominant central midfielder, Liverpool would soon find another right-back.
Prior to breaking into the Liverpool team as a teenager, Alexander-Arnold was tipped to be a star of the future by Anfield legend Steven Gerrard, who described him as a “No. 6, a holding midfielder.” In his youth, Alexander-Arnold played in midfield and it was only his eye-catching early performances for Klopp at right-back that led to him being considered a defender. But Alexander-Arnold certainly has the attributes to play and thrive in midfield as well. His athleticism and passing range would be positive qualities, as would his shooting ability from distance. In a more central role, you would lose his crossing ability from the right, but that loss could be cancelled out by what Alexander-Arnold would add through the middle.
Whether he has the tactical discipline to play in midfield can only be discovered by playing him there, but wherever his future lies, Alexander-Arnold must develop his game. At right-back, he needs to become more alert to danger, while in midfield, he would have to learn the role properly. It is intriguing to wonder how he would have been used by Pep Guardiola, had he been a Manchester City player. Guardiola famously transformed Joshua Kimmich at Bayern Munich by moving him from midfield to defence, and the Catalan tactician may have experimented with Alexander-Arnold in midfield by now.
But there certainly seems to be a different kind of player waiting to burst out of Alexander-Arnold’s body. When a right-back scores a winning goal by being in the left-hand side of the opponent’s penalty area in the 90th minute of a game, it suggests that there is plenty more to give than merely patrolling the right side of the pitch for the rest of his career.