What on earth is Alexander-Arnold doing at Centre-Forward!?
One of the more peculiar sights for fans of the Reds this season has been the sporadic emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold popping up in positions that would usually be expected of a centre-forward. There has been a lot of discussion on the merits of this trend, how it effects other players on the team, whether it suits the Scouse right-backs talents, and if is a net positive or negative effect on the team. It’s hard to give definitive answers to these questions, but I’d like to use the recent friendly against AC Milan to perhaps examine some of the possible logic behind the move. Then, the assessment of the results can be left to you.
To set us up, we need to first take a gander at the team’s rough structure in phases of possession. Modern football teams are intricate clockwork machines, cycling through various shapes and patterns at different phases of play to adapt to the needs and dangers of that situation, and to try to give players roles that suit their skillset. The two phases we’ll focus on are when Liverpool have the ball in central areas, firstly deep in their own half, and then secondly once they’ve reached the middle of the pitch, looking to enter the final third. The image below shows the first of these.
Jurgen Klopp’s side often start in what could be described as a 2-4-2-2, though at this level of detail those number labels for formations are almost meaningless. The shape offers a ‘safety bucket’ of five players who are standing outside of the opponent-controlled zones. This is the goalkeeper, the two centre-backs and the full-backs, by default, but as we will see, any player can take any role so long as the overall shape is met. Teams that defend will always prioritise the passes into the centre, so these diagonal passes back and forth are safe options.
You then have two players positioned next to the opponent’s forward line in front of our centre-backs, typically the pivot and the left midfielder. These players are there to help progress past the first line of the opponent’s shape. Next are two players yet again in the centre, but this time next to the opponent’s midfield line. These players will try to progress past the second line of the defensive shape. Finally, the two wingers are high and wide, to stretch the pitch or potential receive a long switch. We can see the shape against Milan’s 4-2-3-1 block below.
Matip as the right CB, Milner as RB, and Salah as RW are all just off screen, but everything else can be seen. As the wingers are wide, Milan’s fullbacks are pinned backwards. Additionally, the Rossoneri can’t cover both of the Reds’ double pivot with just their 10, which Thiago uses to tempt a step up from their right 6 and play a lovely first time switch out to Milner, who can receive comfortably as the Milan left-back cannot step up. Because the right half of the Italian side’s double pivot had to step up, the other half shifted inside to cover the space, meaning he isn’t close to the action as Milner begins to combine with Elliott and Salah.
With this simple manoeuvre, Liverpool have successfully broken past the first two lines of the defence, leaving only their last line. The opposition naturally retreat deeper to fix this, moving into the next phase. As a brief aside, it is worth mentioning that as the ball is worked to the right, there is also a shape for this, which involves the winger on the far side from the ball making a run in behind, which is done by Oxlade-Chamberlain here. The next phase of play has now properly begun, so let’s examine the setup.
Most of the previous shape is maintained with the central pairs of centre-backs, double pivot, and the ‘between the lines’ players all still here. However, the wingers have moved inside where they can try to make runs towards goal. And in turn, the full-backs have moved up to be the more aggressive wide option.
But this is where we come back to that point about players being able to interchange between roles if the overall shape is maintained. In our example against the Serie A champions, as the ball is circulated from right to left, Salah doesn’t move. Instead, he holds his position causing him to end up in the wide right role of this shape. With Milan’s left-back still wary, a gap is formed between him and his centre-back partner; a gap which must be plugged by their pivot dropping into it. You end up with the below, as the man wearing 8 tries to focus on both Firmino and Elliott.
The goal for Klopp’s team now is to break beyond the last line to create a scoring chance. If a player on the last line (currently Firmino and Oxlade-Chamberlain) tries to do it, then the defender will track it. If the run comes from a player between the lines, then the Milan double pivot will track it. But Stefano Piolo’s left winger is not so ready, so a run from deeper may not be tracked. You can see above that Milner is already beginning to wander in that direction.
In the above screenshot which takes place just two seconds later, you can just about see Oxlade-Chamberlain glance over at Milner as he begins a dropping motion toward the ball. As a chain reaction from Salah’s decision to stay wide, Firmino is on the last line instead of his usual spot between the lines, so the Englishman can drop into that space instead, dragging his centre-back as he does so. Suddenly, space has opened beyond the last line, in behind that defender.
Another two seconds later, Thiago has played the ball in the direction of Milner’s run which is aimed directly into that open space. As hoped, the winger has failed to track the run diligently and is already several metres behind the Liverpool right-back. Meanwhile both pivots who would be expected to prevent these sorts of runs are far too distracted by other players. Unfortunately, Ox doesn’t realise that Thiago’s pass is aimed beyond him, so he lays it back off to the Spaniard.
The ball is instead worked to Elliott and once again, the fact that a winger has been pulled into defending hurts Milan, as he steps forward to confront Elliott but totally forgets about Milner behind him. At this point the overall shape for this phase is crystal clear, with Salah just at the bottom of the picture, and four pairs of two players at various heights in the centre. And below, we finally see the fruits of this labour as Milner is about to receive just outside the box with the defence desperately backpedalling. Here the pass is just a little slow to take on the run, but the Reds still win a free kick just outside the box from it.
From the beginning of the phase in Liverpool’s own half, this entire move has taken just 30 seconds. The team have smoothly morphed from one shape to another, and while doing so have managed to drag several key defensive components out of position, disorganising the opponent’s defensive structure and creating valuable space, all without sacrificing the overall balance of their own structure. If a couple of individual moments had been executed better, this move could easily have led to a big chance and perhaps a goal. But that sentence also contains the potential flaw in this approach.
Can you expect the quality of execution to be high enough if the player involved isn’t suited to that role? Milner is one thing in a friendly, but Alexander-Arnold is clearly a fantastic attacking player on the ball. Will his quality translate into this type of situation, executing those moments around the box? There are valid arguments on both sides of that discussion, and only time will tell us which is backed up by the evidence. For now, it seems that these drastic positional interchanges are here to stay, and we can expect to see more of our favourite Scouse playmaker confusing commentators across the land as he suddenly appears far from home.