The Trent Alexander-Arnold Conundrum

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From the minute he established himself as Liverpool’s first choice right back in the 17-18 season, Trent Alexander-Arnold has carried a lot of pressure on his young shoulder. The Scouser in the team did, like those who came before him, represent the people and the city that shaped his earliest years and like Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and so many local boys who’d managed to reach the first team he understood what that meant.

Trent was going to be held to a higher standard by Liverpool fans, he would have to be a shining example on and off the pitch. Whether he wanted to be or not, he was now a role model for every youngster in the city who hadn’t been afflicted with the blue virus.

His natural talent, the passing and crossing ability to is matched by very few players in world football along with an incredibly high footballing IQ made Trent stand out as something special immediately upon his elevation to the first team, and Jurgen Klopp leaned all the way into it. Trent became the primary playmaker for a team with title ambitions in his second full season, 18/19, and was the fulcrum for most of Liverpool’s creativity. Whether it was his crosses, his crossfield passes to Andy Robertson, his subtle balls in behind opposition defences to Mo Salah or Sadio Mane, or those disguised passes into the feet of Firmino which Bobby in-turn fed around the corner to Salah or Mane, it all seemed to start with Trent.

Outside of a couple of years where Inter Milan ran their attack through Javier Zanetti, we’d never really seen a top club operate with a fullback as their main playmaking outlet and Trent thrived in the role. He thrived under the expectation, knowing that opponents knew what was coming and daring them to try and stop him. Sixteen assists in 18/19, followed by 15 the year after. In 20/21 he was hampered by a calf problem and lingering effects from Covid, as well as playing in a team with no recognisable central defenders, but still contributed nine assists. Last season he bounced back with 19 across all competitions.

Fifty-nine assists in four seasons, from right back. Video game numbers by a player who played like he’d been purposely created in a lab. In other countries he’d have been adored, and the national team would have been reshaped to maximise his talents. Not so in England.

In England the charge to tear down young players is typically led by the media, and this was no different. Gary Neville, a former right-back of middling ability, began a narrative that Trent couldn’t defend. You’d have been forgiven for thinking that Neville himself was a Maldini-esque fullback if you hadn’t watched him be the weak link in Manchester United’s backline for the majority of his career. Nobody who saw him play would ever have confused Gary Neville with a great player. He was a good player who had a great career because he was fortunate even to play with many vastly superior players, under one of the greatest managers of all time. But to hear him cast dispersions on Trent, you might confuse him with Lilian Thuram.

Neville routinely bashed Trent’s defensive work, pointing to a game at Old Trafford where Marcus Rashford scored twice against Trent as an example of his poor defensive work. “I always go back to that game” Neville said repeatedly. But why? Because he didn’t have many other games he could point out. That game took place on March 10th, 2018. That was Trent’s 15th league start for Liverpool. Interestingly, Neville has never brought up Trent’s first league start, which came at Old Trafford, when he deposited Antony Martial in his pocket and forced Jose Mourinho to withdraw the French attacker on 65 minutes.

Neville also choose to ignore a game that took place only 11 weeks later when, in a European Cup Final, Trent did a number on Cristiano Ronaldo and forced the multi-time Balon D’Or winner, who’s backside Neville often resides in, to swap sides because he was getting no luck against the then 19 year old. You’ll rarely hear Neville mentioned other games where Trent and Rashford have faced off, largely because Trent has generally gotten the better of his England colleague. You won’t hear him talk about Trent’s defensive work for weeks on end, until he makes a mistake. You see, Trent is the first defender to ever make a mistake. And as we know, Gary Neville never made one. You won’t find footage of countless goals Gary Neville was at fault for on YouTube, definitely not.

Cristiano isn’t the only elite attacking player to struggle against Trent in a Champions League final. Heung Min-Son got no change from him in the 2019 edition, and while last season’s final was won by a Vinicius Jr goal, the Brazilian winger had a very poor game against Trent and was kept quiet. But he scored, and that made him the hero and Trent the villain. Was the goal Trent’s fault? Partially. Others were more to blame but ultimately Trent didn’t do enough to stop Vinicius from scoring.

The blame game on defenders is always very harsh. They can be otherworldly for 89 minutes and 58 seconds but a two second lapse in concentration can lead to a goal and people will immediately blame the defender closest to the scorer. This has been the case with both the Rashford and Vinicius incidents. The Vinicius goal came from Andy Robertson making a mistake, which was compounded by Virgil not doing enough to start Valverde’s cross/shot, but Trent got the blame. The first Rashford goal came from Lovren charging out of position to contest a ball he was never going to win, and a beautiful bit of skill by Rashford, and the second came from Lovren getting in a wrestling match with Lukaku that caused chaos in Liverpool’s defence. The Croatian was the root cause of both goals, but the narrative tells us that his mistakes are Trent’s fault.

The truth of it is that while Trent has never been a great defender, he’d never been a bad one either. Until this season. Last season, he was objectively good in his defensive work and there were clear signs he’d been working on that side of his game. Liverpool had the best defensive record in the Premier League in three out of four seasons, and in two of those seasons they had the best pre-game defensive record of any team in the top six leagues in Europe. Those things don’t happen if you have a poor defender in your backline. This season though, he suffered a massive regression.

This season his body position was off, his effort levels weren’t good enough and he was torched on multiple occasions by wingers who generally torch every fullback they come up against. It wasn’t just his defending that was poor though, his on-ball play was far below the usual level. He didn’t seem like the same player. Was he injured? Liverpool are so tight-lipped about injuries and illnesses that it’s hard to now. He certainly didn’t look like he was operating on full power, until recently.

With Liverpool 2-0 down at home to Arsenal, Klopp shifted his team about and moved Trent into a different role. It was a role that he had played earlier in the season, moving from right back into a narrow midfield role, but this was a more extreme version. This hybrid role had Trent operating in a double pivot with Fabinho, and the two number 8s pushing into more attacking areas. The back four became a back three of sorts, the midfield three became a box midfield, and the front three altered so that the wide players became more traditional wingers who hold the width.

The person who seems to have benefitted most from the change is Trent. His new role, a hybrid of his right back and central midfield, has given him more freedom to express himself and a more central area from which to display his entire box of tricks. With wingers not trailing him when he moves centrally into a double pivot with Fabinho, Trent is operating without any pressure on the ball. He’s able to take his time and pick his passes, manipulating the opposition defense with a mix of short and long passing and creating chances at an outrageous rate. Watching him stride around midfield, in complete control of games, Trent looks an absolute natural in central midfield. He looks, with his languid running style and laid back approach, like Juan Sebastian Veron circa 1996-2001 when the Argentine maestro bossed games for Sampdoria, Parma and Lazio.

The move has left Liverpool vulnerable defensively though, and if not from an improvement in the form of Virgil Van Dijk alongside the impressive Ibrahima Konate, and the continued brilliance of Alisson Becker, they likely would have been exposed more often in recent games. One of the issues is the unsuitability of Andrew Robertson to the left sided central defender/leftback hybrid role, another is Fabinho’s decline and lack of mobility, but simply asking Van Dijk and in particular Konate to defend such large spaces with little to no help or protection from in front is the biggest problem. With an upgraded defensive midfielder and a more natural fitting player on the left of the back three, it should improve if Klopp wants to continue to play this shape but there will also be a need for either Trent or the right sided attacking midfielder in front of him to offer more cover for Konate if Klopp wants to stick with this shape.

And that’s really the question. Does Klopp want to stick with this shape? And if not what does that mean for Trent? Does he move back to right back? Would he be happy to do that? Or would a specialist right back arrive to enable Trent to stay in midfield? The former is a proven commodity, but the latter is very appealing. Trent the midfielder makes a lot of sense, especially if Liverpool put more legs around him. Liverpool could still switch from the 4-3-3 into a box midfield, but with a back four and front two rather than three in each. Gakpo has shown he’s capable of dropping into one of the attacking midfield roles, so if the team lined up with Trent, a new defensive midfield and heavily linked Alexis Mac Allister in midfield, plus Salah-Gakpo-Diaz in attack, it’s easy to see how it could flex from there into Trent-DM, Gakpo-Alexis, Salah-Diaz in a 4-2-2-2. That might offer better balance and more defensive security as well as giving Salah a more centralised starting position.

Only Klopp and Ljinders know what’s planned for next season, but one thing they must be careful of is not building a team that can’t function without Trent. The current shape is too reliant on the young Scouser and if he’s absent for some reason, or if he just has an off-day like he did against Villa, then problems will arise and Liverpool will struggle to resemble a competent football team.

Trent, in many ways, holds the keys to Liverpool’s future. And that’s a good thing. He’s the best talent the club has produced since Gerrard, he’s got the talent to become one of the greatest players to ever grace English football, be that as a fullback, in a hybrid role, or as a full time midfielder. No matter what role Klopp decides is best for him, the smart money is on Trent flourishing.

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