Article by Sam McGuire
Less than 12 months ago, Liverpool had something of an issue when it came to full-backs. Though James Milner had done an admirable job at left-back it was clear his long-term future wasn’t there and while Nathaniel Clyne was a solid performer, he lacked that cutting edge in the final third.
In some systems this wouldn’t have been much of an issue but these positions are key to the way Jurgen Klopp’s side play football. With the wide forwards tucking inside at every given opportunity, it’s left up to the full-backs to offer the width. They aren’t just there to make dummy runs at breakneck speed, either. They see a lot of the ball, with Milner averaging the second highest amount of touches per 90 minutes last term, and they’re expected to be progressive whenever they are in possession.
After all, what use is it having a player who sees a lot of the ball but is always looking to go backwards?
The current full-backs for Liverpool got their opportunity in the starting XI by chance but their form since getting into the team has seen them merit a place in Klopp’s first-team. Andrew Robertson, praised by every single fan since coming since replacing Alberto Moreno at left-back in December, is the poster boy for clever scouting having arrived for just £8million in the summerfrom a relegated Hull City side.
Clyne was ruled out at the start of the season and this presented Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold with the chance to stake a claim for a starting role in the Liverpool side.
Klopp flip-flopped between the young youngsters but appeared to eventually settle on Gomez as he looked to add some security to a defence which was leaking goals at the time. The former Charlton Athletic man picked up an injury on international duty and this thrust Alexander-Arnold back into the first-team.
Now, heading into the Champions League quarter-final match with Manchester City, many feared the West Derby born youngster would be targeted by the Premier League champions. He’d struggled against the pace and directness of Marcus Rashford and Wilfried Zaha so fans had braced themselves for what might come. Leroy Sane, in the form of his life with 13 goals and 14 assists in all competitions this season, was up against the Liverpool No.66.
Pep Guardiola clearly had a tactic in mind in an attempt to isolate the young right-back but he held firm. Alexander-Arnold won 80% of his tackles in the first-leg at Anfield and was only dribbled past on one occasion. The return leg at the Etihad saw the 19-year-old complete 75% of his tackles and make six interceptions. He played a pivotal role in the Reds showing their resilience against a first-half bombardment from the home side.
His defensive ability was the one area of his game which had question marks surrounding it but over recent weeks he’s showed that he’s developing with every game and that he’s better off for the experience.
Because of this, and the fact he’s forever evolving, Liverpool may have a perfect modern day full-back on their hands. Why? It’s all down to Alexander-Arnold’s training as a youngster.
The 19-year-old wasn’t always a right-back. While playing for the youth team he was deployed in midfield as a deep-lying playmaker. Former Liverpool Pepijn Lijnders trusted him in the No.6 position, which in itself is a big statement.
Lijndersspoke to the Times journalist Jonathan Northcroft in 2017 and lavished praise on Alexander-Arnold: “We try and find the best player to construct the game out from the back, to have the right timings, to have the pause and ability to speed it up. And Trent always plays there. No. 6, my Ruben Neves. I always put Trent at 6. Why? Because every attack he is the main guy, the pivot, the lighthouse of the team, guiding the rest.”
The fact he chose the Liverpool right-back to be his Neves, a player recently linked with a move to Anfield, shows how highly he rated the youngster.
Alexander-Arnold the playmaker
And you can see how being tasked with being the creative hub as a youngster is influencing him as a player now. He’s making passes on a regular basis that a full-back has no right to make. He’s added creativity to this Liverpool side that it had previously lacked. Though he’s only got two assists to his name this term, it doesn’t tell the bigger picture.
For context, he’s got an xA90 (expected goals assisted per 90 minutes) total of 0.16, just 0.03 under what Sadio Mane averages and he’s creating 0.27 big chances per 90 minutes, the seventh highest amount for a full-back in the Premier League this term (stats courtesy of FootballWhispers.com).
There are examples of his creativity in the pictures below.
Mohamed Salah’s goal against Bournemouth has been replayed over and over again since it happened and Alexander-Arnold’s involvement in it has been rightly praised. But the right-back could have finished with two assists in the game with the prolific Egyptian firing wide in the first half after a cross into the area from the Liverpool No.66.
The build up can be seen above. He’s in possession and could play a ball into the feet of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, shown by the white arrow, who has found himself in space. It wouldn’t be a bad pass and given the former Arsenal man is in fine form he probably would have created an opportunity. But the pass into the £35million summer signing wouldn’t have stretched the away side.
And Alexander-Arnold has this ruthless side to his game – if he can carve out a chance then he will. Liverpool have three on three in a central area with their trio of attackers all looking to attack the space behind the Bournemouth defence. So that’s exactly where the right-back aims his cross for. The cross isn’t converted but it shows you what type of player he is.
Lijnders mentioned it in his interview. He wanted Alexander-Arnold to know when to speed things up. It’s perhaps why his selection of crosses is unnervingly good. He doesn’t let the opposition get set before he whips the ball in, it’s why it takes them by surprise because it’s not expected.
Not many players would put the ball into the penalty area when it’s Salah and Daniel Sturridge up against three defenders with another one making their way back. The pass Spartak Moscow seem to be expecting is the one out wide, shown by the white arrow. But the early ball in catches the home side on their heels and Salah is able to meet it but his header is palmed away.
He doesn’t just rely on crosses either. In the picture above he feints to pass wide to Salah before shifting back onto his weaker left foot and playing a pass into the acres of space in the West Ham United defence. It shows his intelligence and his ability to not just spot the pass but to execute it as well. It looks simple but many other full-backs cut inside and play the ball backwards just to retain possession.
He’s got everything needed to be a Klopp full-back going forward and the more matches he plays at right-back the better he’ll be when it comes to anticipation and positional awareness. The Liverpool manager saw the value in having Milner, a midfielder, play as a full-back but in Alexander-Arnold he’s got a shiny 2.0 version with copious amounts of potential. He could be there for the next 15 years – the Reds have struck gold.
Article by Sam McGuire
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