By Sean Mulryan
Trent Alexander-Arnold has been a conqueror of England, Europe and the world; all before his 25th birthday. You would be excused for drawing comparisons between himself and his historical namesake Alexander the Great, a similarly youthful all-conquering marauding force, though Trent’s methods are arguably slightly less violent. At a tender age, he has already redefined the fullback’s role in the modern era with the trophy cabinet to match.
If this brief summary of Trent’s repertoire still ceases to impress you, you would not be alone. As Liverpool careened out of the Champions League to our now immutable enemy Real Madrid, Jamie Carragher clarified his own frustrations against his fellow Scouser.
Speaking on CBS Sports he said, “When Liverpool drop off and aren’t one of the best teams in Europe, like they have been for the last four years, now they’re one of the pack going for the Champions League. Then you’re doing more defending, and less attacking. You’re seeing the worst traits of Trent, and not his strengths going forward.
“If Liverpool are trying to qualify for the Champions League on a yearly basis, I’m not sure Trent’s your man.” He finished. Challenging Trent’s defensive attributes are not unique critiques to adopt. To throw the proverbial gauntlet down, let us start there.
Someone deemed to be having an astounding season this year is Newcastle’s Kieran Trippier. Keeping Trent out of England’s starting team at the World Cup whilst simultaneously helping orchestrate Newcastle’s hunt for European qualification. Enjoying a career resurgence since returning to England from his success-filled time with Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, it is an irrepressible fact that he has been the most supreme right back this season.
However, comparing Trippier and Trent’s statistics for this term actually indicates the gap between the two is closer than most would have you believe. Looking at Trippier’s defensive third tackles reveals he sits at 1.15 per 90, in which Trent marginally outshines him by 1.16 per 90. Similarly, Trent loses out against attacking dribblers 0.88 times per 90, whereas the “defensively superior” Trippier again possesses an inferior record by losing out at a rate of 1.15 per 90. Trent’s defensive prowess continues when making interceptions, successfully intervening 1.40 times in 90 minutes which eclipses Trippier’s 1.27 per 90 (fbref).
The loquacious nature of sports is that there always exists a narrative, and the narrative against Trent is that he is completely inept regarding his defensive duties. This is untrue, clearly. His numbers hold up against the most in-form fullback in what is perceived as an off-season for the boy from West Derby.
As Jamie rightly indicated, where Trent has excelled in recent seasons is with his offensive output. Before Trent, the reality of a fullback being the creative life force of a team was rare. In eras gone by, there have been eccentric examples of similarly rare talents none more so than in footballing royalty, Cafu and Roberto Carlos.
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Marcos Evangelista de Morais, Cafu, is an icon entrenched in footballing mythos and has voiced his love for Trent on numerous occasions. He spoke, “He has everything: quality, dribbling, pace, but it’s always the same story, they say you are not defensive enough and you remain out. Somebody used to say the same about Roberto Carlos and me, but I think we won something…”. It is safe to assume he would recognise indubitable talent if he saw it and even he cannot understand Trent’s treatment.
Cafu’s comments are intriguing. Comparing Trent to two of the greatest fullbacks of all time in himself and Roberto Carlos, the latter who forged a career notably at the biggest European powerhouse Real Madrid should be taken with the gravitas it deserves.
Across his career, Roberto Carlos amassed 756 appearances scoring 97 times and assisting 125 times. The perfunctory objective of the fullback has changed over the decades and the influence that icons such as Roberto Carlos are responsible for is felt to this day. There is now a responsibility for creative impact, for attacking impetus. Defending is no longer the sole prerequisite for what constitutes the perfect fullback.
Trent embodies this, as discussed previously he has the necessary defensive skillset to make a mockery of the mass jibes that he cannot defend. Trent Alexander-Arnold goes beyond simply embracing and appealing to the new standards for fullbacks because he simply is the new standard.
Despite the eagerness to dismiss Trent’s ability this season, his numbers still remain elite. Circling back to comparing Trent with Trippier, the most in-form right back currently in the Premier League, their creative output remains almost inseparable. According to Squawka, there are just two English players with 15+ big chances manufactured in the Premier League this season. Trippier leads the way with 18 chances, closely followed by the impeachable Trent Alexander-Arnold with 16 (Squawka).
Comparing Trent’s domestic form against other elite fullbacks of a similar profile and age such as Hakimi, Reece James, Ben White and Dalot, just reiterates Trent’s special talent. Chastening statistics reveal that Trent outranks all of these fullbacks in shot-creating actions, with a superior 3.72 actions per 90 (fbref). Liverpool are deeply indebted to the Scouse full-back for their creative output, with 40% of their attacks emanating from the right-hand side of the team (whoscored).
Despite the praises listed, it would be fatal hubris to blindly believe Trent is not going through a difficult juncture in his career. In years past, Trent set the record for the most assists by a defender in a Premier League season by getting 12 assists, only to break his own record the following year with a score of 13 in the 2019/20 season. He is nowhere near touching his landmark assist records this season, and with just one goal in all competitions, there is just cause for concern.
This is by no means a critique, it is actually a testament to how other-worldly he has been in seasons past. Winning everything meaningful there is to win in club football is not achieved if you are a weak link. A cruel fact is that Liverpool as an entity are undergoing a difficult transitionary period for the first time since Klopp assembled his mentality monsters. Off the pitch, key figures such as Michael Edwards, Ian Graham and Julian Ward have already left or are soon to depart.
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On the pitch, this once-impregnable squad is rapidly ageing and players who were once at the mountainous peak of their footballing powers are now sliding down the wrong side of this mountain, back to the cold realities of Earth.
Trent is not one of these players. While his numbers are depleted this season, he remains one of the most creatively influential players in this team. As Murphy’s law dictates, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Unfortunately for Liverpool, everything is simultaneously going wrong. A cauldron of consequences for past ineptitudes has resulted in a concoction of disaster that we are tasting the full ramifications of as a team.
Trent’s drop in form can be attributed to a variety of catalysts that are out of his control. Using Trent as a scapegoat is a deeply illogical stance to take. The underlying statistics support the notion that Trent is suffering as a consequence of the team, not that the team are suffering as a consequence of Trent. He is one of the world’s most gifted footballers, revered by history’s greatest, with a skillset so unique that it has helped revolutionise the standards for a modern fullback. A team with Trent in it is a dangerous animal, a unicorn of a player whose best form surpasses that of anybody in his position. Trent has proved he has the quality to exist in a team that consistently chases Champions Leagues and Premier Leagues, let alone top-four finishes. We would do well to respect the footballing prowess before our eyes in Trent Alexander-Arnold.