Trent Alexander-Arnold has taken on a new midfield role with England
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Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Andrea Pirlo: they are not names the average right-back cites as an influence. But then it has long been apparent that Trent Alexander-Arnold is not the average right-back. He is the playmaker, the revolutionary with the passing range of a quarterback, not a right-back. He still tends to start in a back four for Liverpool but he is now listed among the midfielders when England squads are named: if Alexander-Arnold long appeared the conundrum Gareth Southgate could not solve, now he has found what to do with a full-back who suffered from being the antithesis of Kyle Walker.
Jurgen Klopp was initially a sceptic when Southgate tried Alexander-Arnold in a central role against Andorra two years ago. “Why would you make the best right-back in the world a midfielder? I don’t understand that, really,” he said then. Yet he has facilitated Alexander-Arnold’s evolution. If it stems in part from a shift in Liverpool’s tactics, beginning with April’s draw against Arsenal, to enable them to build up with two men in front of the defence, his recent international appearances, apart from against Australia, have been as a bona fide midfielder. The 25-year-old feels he actually occupies similar parts of the pitch for club and country, just from different starting positions.
Gareth Southgate has finally figured out a role for the Liverpool star
“I go there as a midfielder,” he said. “It really does help me in that sense, I am not playing midfield week in, week out here but I am getting on the ball in central areas. The way I see it and the way I am told and explained to play it, it is almost when we have the ball I am a midfielder and when we don’t have the ball I am a right-back. Half of the time or 60 per cent of the game, I am playing in midfield so naturally people warm to the idea of me playing in the middle of the pitch. Defensively, I haven’t been given the opportunity to know how to play there just yet, but it is something I study.”
The learning process involves examining the midfield masters, the men who have set the tone for their teams by lending control; but also an England colleague who is also part defender, part midfielder.
“I think as someone who plays the inverted, hybrid role – I don’t know what people call it these days – then it is obviously John Stones,” Alexander-Arnold added. “For a long time, I have admired his game. He is exceptional, so I watch him a lot; clips or even when I am just watching [Manchester] City’s games, I will sit and focus on him. I do admire the way Rodri plays. He is pivotal in that team and massively underrated but, like we have seen recently, when you take him out of the team, they are not the same. That just shows how important he is. I will watch players from the past as well – Busquets, Alonso, Pirlo, Stevie G.”
Steven Gerrard can assume significance for several reasons; Alexander-Arnold, appointed Virgil van Dijk’s deputy, is on course to become the first Merseysider to become Liverpool’s club captain since perhaps their most iconic skipper. But Gerrard’s initial foray into coaching was with Liverpool youth teams. In his second autobiography, he praised a young “Trent Arnold”, as he called him. “He can play as a No 6, a holding midfielder, but he’s versatile,” Gerrard wrote then.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is an admirer of England colleague John Stones
Gerrard made the opposite journey to Alexander-Arnold: he ended up at the base of the midfield after spending much of the previous decade as a No 10, a No 8 or a right-sided midfielder. If neither is a metronome, a common denominator is the rare ability to play a defence-splitting pass from deep. That, almost, is the easy bit for Alexander-Arnold. The harder part is the positional sense the main defensive midfielder has to exhibit.
“I think when the ball advances up the pitch it becomes more about protection and stopping counterattacks,” he explained. “It is more disciplined. When I come in as a right-back there is still [Wataru] Endo or Macca [Alexis Mac Allister] there, Fabinho last season, their job is to stay as the No 6. It doesn’t waiver.
“My job is the one who comes in and still has the freedom to underlap Mo [Salah] or overlap him, get into the box, shoot or cross. Whereas as a No 6, it is more rigid, you are a defensive midfielder and it is your role along with the two centre-backs to ensure that when the ball pops out of the box, it doesn’t go into the striker’s feet and they can build from there. That is probably the main one. The rest is positionally getting used to where to be and a lot of it in me is very instinctive and trying to read the game before it happens and put myself in the right position.”
If Southgate long had the problem of where the right position for Alexander-Arnold was, the answer may involve not Walker, Kieran Trippier, Reece James and his host of right-backs, but Stones and Pirlo, Gerrard and Alonso.
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