Football

Trent Alexander-Arnold — the unicorn of full-backs

Multi-faceted: Alexander-Arnold functions as an outlet, a link-player and a creator, both on the flank and in more central areas.

Multi-faceted: Alexander-Arnold functions as an outlet, a link-player and a creator, both on the flank and in more central areas. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Supplier extraordinaire: Once he has the ball, Alexander-Arnold has the ability to put it on a plate for the attacker.

Supplier extraordinaire: Once he has the ball, Alexander-Arnold has the ability to put it on a plate for the attacker. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Giant steps: Alexander-Arnold’s evolution is a consequence of coach Klopp’s principles of play which lays emphasis on positional fluidity.

Giant steps: Alexander-Arnold’s evolution is a consequence of coach Klopp’s principles of play which lays emphasis on positional fluidity. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Trent Alexander-Arnold is that rare creature in football — one that broadens the definition of his position. For some years now, the full-back has been a two-way player, contributing to both defence and attack. Dani Alves, Philipp Lahm and Marcelo are among the most successful practitioners of the craft in recent years, changing the way the modern full-back is assessed and valued.

What Alexander-Arnold has done at just 23 is expand the possibilities of the role even further. The Liverpool right-back functions as an outlet, a link-player and a creator, both on the flank and in more central areas. Not only is he in zones full-backs have seldom been in before, he does a wider range of things and does them differently to others — and all this at a very high level.

In 2018-19, Alexander-Arnold laid on 12 Premier League assists — a record for a defender — and then improved on the mark the next season, setting up 13 goals as Liverpool won the title. His 16 assists in all competitions so far this season are a club record for any player, not just full-backs, equalling Liverpool great Steven Gerrard. He is in the top 1% of all full-backs in Europe’s big five leagues at shot-creating actions, as per stats outlet FBref; he is also in the top 10% at interceptions.

“The way he plays, I don’t know any player who plays like Trent in the world,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said. “I think in the past some people thought about other full-backs that redefined the position. Maybe they did — but, for sure, he is doing it so far. Where it can end, where it will go to, I don’t know. Whatever you set up as a coach, 90% is up to the player, what he makes of it.”

Klopp isn’t alone in his appreciation. Alves, seen as the prototype for the modern full-back thanks to his penetrating runs and technical ability during his time with a dominant Barcelona side, is a fan as well. The 38-year-old right-back, who returned to Barca this season, was asked by Spanish publication Marca about who he thought was the successor to his throne. “I really like the one from Liverpool, Alexander-Arnold,” he said. “He’s a fantastic footballer with world-class skills.”

Skilful and dynamic

Alexander-Arnold’s early football education offers a hint of how he became such a talented ball-player. After joining Liverpool’s academy at the age of six, he played primarily in midfield when progressing through the ranks — he was viewed by coaches as an exceptionally skilful and dynamic player. His switch to the right side of defence came in the later stages of his time at the academy.

The move paid off swiftly: he was handed a senior debut in October 2016. “He developed in a way that nobody could expect exactly,” Klopp said, when he was asked whether he knew Alexander-Arnold was a future world-beater when he first saw him.

“This skinny kid came around the corner and you could see he was special, but there was a lot of work to do, especially physically. Look at the first pictures of Trent and now the man he became. Wow! What a difference. It’s not that you tell a full-back from the first day, ‘so in these situations you are really high, in these situations you are really deep’. You develop that as a team.”

Alexander-Arnold’s evolution is a consequence of Klopp’s principles of play — which, among other things, emphasise positional fluidity as long as key zones on the pitch are filled — and the young right-back’s interpretation of them. He knows he doesn’t have to just “hold the width” when Liverpool has possession of the ball.

“It always comes from the manager,” Alexander-Arnold told The Athletic. “He has set up a system to allow the players to move with fluidity to help the team create moments that win games. He has allowed me to have that freedom to drift inside a little bit more. It helps offensively and defensively. If we lose the ball, there is an extra number in the middle of the park to go and win it back. And when I am getting on the ball, I am in more dangerous areas than just standing out wide.

“There has been a lot of focus this season on the two triangles out wide — so, we have the No. 8 in midfield, the full-back and the winger on each side. It is about making sure, at all times, there should be someone occupying the width, someone high up on the last line and someone in a half-space or in a midfield eight. The manager says it is not too important who it is, just as long as we are occupying those three spaces.”

Alexander-Arnold elaborated on some of these themes in an interview with Liverpool’s official website. “Obviously me and Mo [Mohamed Salah] are the two ever-present on that [right] side and then whoever comes in — whether it be Hendo [Jordan Henderson], Naby [Keita] or anyone really — it’s just flowing. It’s just playing with freedom, to be honest — especially more this season.

Natural sense

“It’s just a natural sense of where to be at the right time. Just rotating, causing headaches for the opposition and just finding myself in positions where I can hurt the opposition.”

Once he has the ball, Alexander-Arnold has the ability to put it on a plate for the attacker. His ball-striking talent is elite, but so is his intuition for knowing just the right moment to release the ball and what type of ball it should be.

“That’s the joy, really,” he said. “You can hit it to either [Sadio] Mane or Salah and they’ll deal with it. I would put Bobby [Firmino] and Diogo [Jota] in that category as well. They are able to deal with any ball you put into them. At times they know you need them just as an out-ball, and then the rest of the time you are able to give them passes with a bit more care.”

While Alexander-Arnold’s part in Liverpool’s attack is widely acclaimed, several critics don’t rate his defensive skills.

“I don’t understand that, but I don’t think I will change that with whatever I say,” said Klopp when asked if he knew why the 23-year-old’s defensive game attracts scrutiny. “But if he couldn’t defend, he would not play here — at least not in that position. His defending is not a problem we have.”

Perhaps the criticism stems from the fact that Alexander-Arnold is not often tasked with defending in a style critics expect from the back-line.

Given the amount of time Liverpool usually spends in the opposition half and Klopp’s method of defending from the front by counter-pressing as a team, he doesn’t have to be an elite one-on-one defender; he just needs to cut the obvious mistakes out. In 158 Premier League appearances, he has zero own goals, zero red cards and just two errors leading to a goal, so he is doing all right.

This isn’t to say Alexander-Arnold is flawless — he loses more duels and aerial battles than he wins, as per Premier League data. But surely some of the criticism is misplaced. Klopp clearly has had enough. “If anyone says anything about Trent can’t defend, they should come to me, I will knock them down,” he said after a win over Arsenal when he was again asked about it. “Honestly, I cannot hear it anymore. I don’t know what the boy has to do.”

What the boy already has done, however, is immense. A Premier League, Champions League, Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup winner before his 22nd birthday, Alexander-Arnold is a unicorn, given how exceptional he is, and a highly successful one at that.


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Printable version | May 17, 2022 9:53:48 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/football/trent-alexander-arnold-the-unicorn-of-full-backs/article65379043.ece