Liverpool’s Young Full-backs Produce a Performance for the Ages
This time last year, imagine being told that Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson would be starring in a Champions League quarter-final for Liverpool.
It would have felt ludicrous.
The former was still an 18-year-old who had made just 10 appearances for the Reds, and a fully fit Nathaniel Clyne was a nailed-on starter. Nobody had him pencilled in to be a regular so soon.
Robertson, meanwhile, was on the verge of relegation with Hull City, and despite being a rare positive in a terrible campaign for the Tigers, predicting this kind of 12-month trajectory would have been nonsensical.
Even when he joined for £8 million, the reception was relatively lukewarm, due mainly to him being an unfashionable player, rather than a household name across Europe.
On a night when Liverpool produced one of their all-time great European performances, seeing off a fantastic Man City side 3-0 at Anfield, the two full-backs excelled most, as this thrilling season continues.
In fairness, there wasn’t a single outfield player who failed to do themselves proud on an incredible night, with the untroubled Loris Karius the only individual who could be deemed “solid”, with City failing to register a single shot on target.
Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk were immaculate at centre-back, not allowing City’s world-class attack a sniff, and their partnership is becoming an effective one, for all Lovren’s faults.
Jordan Henderson again showed that he is a good footballer who, despite his limitations in a defensive midfield role, is a far more competent player than many give him credit for.
James Milner rolled back the years and continued his influential recent form, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s thunderbolt was the high point on an another great evening for the former Arsenal man.
The front-three of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino wreaked havoc, just like they have been doing all season.
The fact that they weren’t even the best of the bunch shows how good those around them were, with Salah scoring and assisting, Mane heading home Liverpool’s third goal and Roberto Firmino setting up the Egyptian for the opener.
That’s now 77 goals and 32 assists between them in 2017/18, which is frightening.
It was Alexander-Arnold and Robertson who just about managed to stand out from the rest, though, as Jurgen Klopp’s side allowed themselves to dream about a place in the Champions League semi-finals. If the world depended on correctly naming the most deserving Man of the Match, it would have to be Alexander-Arnold. The teenager has taken plenty of flack of late, after defensive lapses cost Liverpool goals against Man United and Crystal Palace, and there was apprehension surrounding his involvement on Wednesday night.
With Joe Gomez injured and Clyne not ready to return for a game of such magnitude, he had to start, but the thought of him up against the electrifying Leroy Sane was a worrying one. We should never have doubted him, however, as he enjoyed the best display of his career to date, performing almost perfectly for his boyhood club. He won four tackles and eight duels, made 10 clearances, used the ball superbly going forward and never once looked out of place on a gigantic stage. The right-back’s revving-up of the Anfield crowd late in the day was an image that will be replayed over and over again, and it was an occasion that felt coming-of-age.
Then there was Robertson, whose Liverpool career continues to blossom, with many already lauding him as potentially the Reds’ best left-back in decades. He appears to possess the best attributes of Stig Inge Bjornebye, John Arne Riise and Fabio Aurelio, without having any of their respective shortcomings. That may sound hyperbolic, but he has been increasingly impressive as the weeks have passed, with his speed, directness, end product and defensive application making him the best in the Premier League in his position.
Robertson was at his marauding best against a helpless City team at Anfield, with one lung-busting run in the first-half threatening to end in a Goal of the Season contender, only for Fernandinho to make a crucial last-ditch block. He was tenacious all evening, and just like Alexander-Arnold, he revelled in the atmosphere, rather than shrinking under pressure. The Scot is already a crowd favourite, and his likeable, intelligent character in off-field interviews suggests Liverpool have got a real gem on their hands. Having only recently turned 24, the future promises so much, and few left-backs have burst onto the scene so emphatically at Anfield.
To see two developing full-backs shine in a match as big as Wednesday’s set them apart from their teammates, and having the pair dovetailing together in the coming years should be a mouthwatering prospect for any Reds supporter.
They seem like great lads with cool heads on young shoulders, and most importantly, they are tremendous footballers who suit Klopp’s all-action style of play down to the ground.
Liverpool’s manager really is building something special at the moment, regardless of a maiden trophy still evading him – will that change in May? – and the way he improves young players is one of his greatest strengths.
We are witnessing that firsthand with Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, and in years to come, fans will still speak about how magnificent both were on the night they destroyed an all-conquering City side.