Despite the superb and exciting new role being undertaken by Trent Alexander Arnold, we must consider the inevitable periods that the revitaliSed England star will not be available next season. Though I am reluctant to pigeonhole our Spanish master, Thiago Alcântara, as a backup to anyone, I do feel that we must be selective in his game-time in order to ensure his availability at key moments in the campaign. In my opinion, the former Barca player will remain our most gifted and influential midfield player no matter who we sign this summer, yet we must accept the realities of his body’s limitations.
The 2022/23 campaign saw our rhythm and structure thrown into disarray, as opposition teams became keen to engage our tired engine room. During our horrendous form, many games saw our Spanish international controller having to support us as a secondary defensive midfielder, with so little energy and thrust within that area of the pitch. Injuries became apparent due to the need to constantly have him on the pitch, with his work rate outshining everyone else in our middle ground. People will point to the requirements and traits needed to function within Jürgen Klopp’s ‘rock and roll’ system, however, we still need creative talents to be catered for, given their overall impact on our patterns of play.
I have remarked on many occasions how the likes of Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos have been able to extend their elite-level careers, due to monstrous young players surrounding them. With 25-30 players likely to be present in our perspective 2023/24 first-team group, it must be a case of having variation in both ability and physicality throughout the ranks. The 50-60 games that are undertaken will always take their toll on ambitious football clubs, which is why considerations must be made for key individuals. This is where I believe we can absolutely facilitate and utilise the majestic skillset of our 33-year-old former Bayern Munich star.
What this team needs to be careful of, is becoming too over-reliant on Trent as the primary playmaker. I do see Alexis Mac Allister as the ideal addition (in many ways), as he can take some of the creative burden away from our famous number 66. In any instance, our central double pivot should still be tasked with one quarterback type player, who is a confident and consistent body that can recycle possession. This is a player that needs to be demanding the ball whilst not putting a strain on our defensive line due to a non-progressive tendency. This is not a job for the like of Jordan Henderson, who often struggles when under pressure.
With TAA, the system will clearly operate as a hybrid role, as he drops right back out of possession. The 20-cap England man is now performing with renewed vigour and determination, which means he will be busting a lung to aid his team. As a long-term alternative, this trait is something that Stefan Bajčetić could potentially be coached into replicating. The main issue remains though, that the inexperienced nature of this 18-year-old means that we cannot be sure if he would be able to carry out the duties to a consistent level, therefore his game time should be more sporadic and considered next season. As the Reds enter the final days before their preseason commences, the coaching staff will have to consider whether a back three could hold firm as a trio, thereby allowing that double pivot to maintain their positions out of possession.
This scenario would create two systems. One 3-4-3 hybrid formation would allow Trent to move from defensive line forwards, whereas the other would keep that 3-4-3 shape regardless. If we are to truly evolve and regenerate into another elite entity (under Klopp), magnificent game intelligence and ability is a must, which is where Thiago could become a magical asset for our German manager. The Brazil-born maestro is someone that can flourish in any of the four midfield positions. Every facet would improve from having him playing beside them, which could make him a vital weapon for how we attack next season. I still hope we find a way to extend the Spaniard’s current contract (which has a year to run), as James Milner’s continuing role and salary means there is room for a high-paid rotation piece in the squad, especially ones who are still some of the world’s best.
At Manchester City, we have commonly seen this hybrid role facilitated in order to allow a solid middle area within an interchanging system. This on-ball initiative suits Pep Guardiola’s side, as they control anywhere between 60% – 80% of most of the games they play. Last season’s version saw John Stones stepping into the middle ground, in order to facilitate space and create a double pivot with the brilliant Rodri. The England defender’s ability to drop into either the centre-back or full-back position allowed further bodies more freedom in the attacking third. Prior to this, the Etihad team had been able to push their out-of-favour left back, João Cancelo, from the side and into that middle ground.
The back three behind would occupy space and shuffle along the width of the pitch as the game dictated. What we did see last season, was City able to leave John Stones in that middle area, as a body that could cover passing lanes, pick up runners, and either regain possession or recycle the ball back into the feet of others. There was less need to have him drop back into the rearguard, with a confidence that the back three would offer enough security and that order would soon be restored. This kind of enterprise is something that should be considered at Anfield, which could be ideal for Trent long-term role and Thiago’s short-term impact.
I wrote recently how Liverpool would be able to navigate their way through games, whilst fielding a back three without the accompanying wing backs. With the game taking another tactical shift (since the introduction of VAR), varying degrees of risk have been accepted due to the perception of rewards on offer. Liverpool must incorporate a tactical master plan that is not incumbent of the performances of Trent Alexander, after becoming far too accustomed to the orchestration of Thiago in the years prior. This next Liverpool side must be flexible and open to moving pieces around the board, which is why our manager and recruitment team always endeavour to target versatile players. With an energetic type such as Manu Kone or Roméo Lavia selected into the holding midfield role, I do believe their pace and power could allow their double pivot partner to stay the course, rather than just drop back in to create a back four. Alcântara does not have the legs or experience to be dropping into such a position, which is why I believe certain games could see him thrive here.
As I write this, I am still aware that a strong big could still take our number 6 away from us this summer. This may or may not be why we are targeting so many middlemen, yet I hope there is a way to keep him at Anfield for one more season at least. I do not want a slow transition to stutter and create more pressure on our manager, I want to see key individuals pick up the team and carry them to the upper echelon of the table. With that, I believe our former four time La Liga winner, seven-time Bundesliga winner, and two-time Champions League winner, is the kind of man we need to get us where we want to be.