Trent Alexander-Arnold remains a fine defender, with his Liverpool teammates lacking the power to nurture his talents this season.
Liverpool are having a terrible season on all fronts, and now they only have the Premier League to show their relevance. Their regression has been so confusing that a top-four finish will seem like a significant overachievement.
The departure of Sadio Mane and injuries to Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz have all come to cost Liverpool. With more emphasis on the depleting ranks of their defence, many have claimed Virgil van Dijk lost his power due to a cocktail of dreadful performances and arrogance.
Instead of taking up the offer of a week off after visiting a concert with Jude Bellingham on last Sunday night, Alexander-Arnold reported to Liverpool’s AXA training ground and got his head down. The focus was on fitness, strength and conditioning. [@_pauljoyce] pic.twitter.com/pIzebfWbms
— The Anfield Talk (@TheAnfieldTalk) March 29, 2023
Incidentally, Trent Alexander-Arnold has received the more significant chunk of the criticism. Those spewing words against the defender, forgetting his massive credit in the bank. Past reputation has worked well for van Dijk but not for the right-back, who has had a tough season among all of Liverpool’s players.
Since day one of the Premier League season, Alexander-Arnold’s name has been tarnished to another level. But he has produced the performances warranting that. Yet, most pundits have conveniently chosen to ignore the other facts.
Yes, teams have studied Liverpool’s weak spots extensively and thoroughly exploited those issues. Pacey wingers and technical players have sought solace from the right flank of their defence, where Alexander-Arnold remains stationed.
Looking at some of Alexander-Arnold’s defensive numbers from this season, it may seem fine. The audiences want to see failure moments. But the right-back has worked hard. He may come across as lazy and even need more energy at times; the problem may come from the collective rather than one player in a team of eleven.
Why is the Liverpool defensive backdoor wide open?
At the Emirates, Martin Odegaard found space behind Trent Alexander-Arnold to feed Gabriel Martinelli for Arsenal’s opener in the first minute. The Brazilian then exploited the full-back to find Bukayo Saka in the same half. The winger kept the Liverpool enigma on his toes in that game, which became the story.
— afcstuff (@afcstuff) October 9, 2022
Everyone needs to see the weakened midfield, which once used to let Alexander-Arnold play a free attacking role from deep. Instead, the right-back has had to defend these spaces and prove himself a top-notch defender.
Alexander-Arnold, by design, is not this defender. He is no Ben White or Kyle Walker. He is a lethal weapon in the attacking third. However, that does not excuse him from his selected role in the side, which this season has been to defend the ball like a regular right-back.
It is clear, at times, he has not been at the races. But the overall situation Alexander-Arnold found himself in this season has been far less favourable to his gameplay. For all this, many even suggested Jurgen Klopp should transform him into a midfielder on the right side of a three.
Can Trent Alexander-Arnold play midfield? Should he?
Liverpool transformed their style under Klopp. And while it took time, the team mastered the technique and system. Once they got into their rhythm, the Reds were an unstoppable force. Even Manchester City could not handle the pressure for half the time, and here we are in a different state altogether.
See the company Trent resides in. Clearly unusual. Perfectly aligns with my tweets from Saturday about how much mopping up he does for Liverpool. Makes a lot of sense because of his football IQ: reading the play, where the ball will go to. pic.twitter.com/CgZToRQSMO
— AI (@nonewthing) April 4, 2023
Reiterating the point of blaming Alexander-Arnold alone does not justify how the defence has performed as a collective. Yet, many suggest the right-back should try out in midfield. Why? Because he has tremendous skills on the ball and could provide an extra impetus to their attacking third.
As Mohamed Salah’s stats show, Liverpool have no problem with their attack. However, even if we consider the absurd idea of playing in midfield, we must understand what a midfielder in Klopp’s system must do. The primary function here is to win all the loose balls, provide backup to the forward press and give the full-backs the required protection.
Now let’s imagine Alexander-Arnold in that midfield three, and does someone think he can do the roles above to their optimum levels? No, because those are not his skill sets, and we can assume Klopp knows his players better than any pundit or analyst.
A Klopp midfielder must play short connecting passes and be a duel monster. Moreover, the crucial part of the job is to anticipate danger. Fabinho and Jordan Henderson were superb with that task until this season.
Moreover, the significant change Klopp should enforce is to bring a viable competitor for his place. Alexander-Arnold has not had a reliable, competitive deputy since he took over the right-back berth from Nathaniel Clyne. James Milner and Joe Gomez are unrealistic options, and a new arrival could boost the position altogether.
Hence, there is no point pivoting Alexander-Arnold into a central midfielder. He is best in the right-back spot. But all fans need is be patient with him, Klopp and the entire system.
What needs changing?
Before this season, only Pep Guardiola deployed what is known as an inverted full-back. Mikel Arteta changed the intensity of that role with a clear-cut starter and influencer in Oleksandr Zinchenko. The surprise the role brings being new to the entire league could be why Arsenal are achieving so much success.
Oleksandr Zinchenko looking dejected on the Arsenal bench after Trent Alexander-Arnold nutmegs him to set up Liverpool's late equaliser 😔 pic.twitter.com/tDoamOuo1v
— SPORTbible (@sportbible) April 9, 2023
Players need help to guess where Zinchenko might go or what he might do next. It is similar to Antonio Conte’s introduction of the back three to English football, which worked wonders for Chelsea’s title-winning season under him. The same goes for Jurgen Klopp and the Gegenpress.
The similarity between Klopp and Guardiola was their ability to sustain a similar playing style for years. Liverpool’s has fallen off, and the German may have already thought of new ideas to revamp his squad. There have also been personnel changes with his team, which has forced him re-calibrate some of his key players.
The significant change has come in midfield, where Henderson and Fabinho have lacked the power they used to have. Henderson, in particular, barely supports Alexander-Arnold by protecting the ball. It restricts the right-back his usual freedom to dictate the attack.
One way forward for Klopp would be to turn Alexander-Arnold into a fabled inverted-full back and possibly redefine the role. Zinchenko might have set the benchmark for the role. But the Liverpool man could have his way of doing things as it suits his skill set.
He could have more freedom on the ball and the ability to shape the attack with his incisive passing techniques. Those skills have gone for a toss this season. After Arsenal’s visit to Anfield on Sunday, he could learn something from Zinchenko or even Ben White about what the role brings to the team. Nonetheless, Alexander-Arnold showed his quality after setting up Roberto Firmino’s equaliser in the riveting 2-2 draw.
For now, Liverpool fans should urge patience and cut the defender a bit of slack. Credit in the bank is a thing, and it is time for the supporters to back Alexander-Arnold than continue with their pointless criticism without knowing the problem.