Trent Alexander-Arnold: Midfield maestro? Liverpool's future might have just got a whole lot brighter
Could Liverpool’s great midfield rebuild feature Trent Alexander-Arnold, then? On the evidence of the past couple of weeks, the answer is quite possibly.
Having scaled remarkable heights as the most creative and attacking of right-backs, the Reds’ homegrown hero has begun to show off a few new tricks of late. Trent the quarterback? Promising. Trent the metronome? Impressive.
Trent the saviour, perhaps, for Jurgen Klopp.
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He’s used to being asked questions about his England international, but Monday night’s win at Leeds, as dominant as the 6-1 scoreline suggests, will surely only open up a new line of Alexander-Arnold debate.
Namely, can he be of more use to Liverpool in midfield than he is at full-back, going forward?
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A performance to savour
Certainly, Alexander-Arnold’s performance at Elland Road lends weight to the theory that his future lies infield.
The 24-year-old was outstanding, creating Liverpool’s first goal for Cody Gakpo and their sixth for Darwin Nunez. A driven low cross and a beautifully-judged clip over the top - classic Trent.
Beyond the assists, though, there was so much more for fans, and Klopp, to savour.
Alexander-Arnold started, nominally at least, at right-back, but spent the bulk of the game dictating play from a right-sided central midfield role. And boy did he do it well.
He had more touches of the ball (153) than any other player on the pitch. More touches, in fact, than he has ever had in a professional game. He completed 124 passes - only Virgil van Dijk managed more - with a completion rate of just over 91 percent. Thirty-four of those passes were played into the final third, at least 10 more than anyone else in red, and more than twice as many as anyone in a Leeds shirt.
There was defensive work, too. Three tackles, two of them won, an interception and a pair of clearances, with possession won back for his side more times (11) than anyone else on the field. Klopp said his favourite moment of the game came in the 92nd minute, when four Liverpool players hunted down Georginio Rutter. Alexander-Arnold was the one leading that counterpress in the Leeds half.
His touchmap was telling, with only 17 touches coming in his own defensive third, and only 12 coming in the final third. Less than a third came in what you would call a ‘typical’ right-back position, with the bulk coming in midfield.
He attempted only one cross in the entire 90 minutes, although he did clip a lovely free-kick to the back post in the second half, with Van Dijk just offside as he set up Mohamed Salah for a disallowed goal.
All in all, it was some display, the kind which will inevitably lead to questions for Klopp about where best to deploy one of his star men in the future.
The debate about Alexander-Arnold in midfield is not exactly new. It has tended to come up regularly in recent years, usually when he’s had a bit of a chasing from a tricky winger, or when Liverpool’s engine room has looked short of spark.
It’s a position he played regularly as a youngster coming through the Reds’ academy. He was generally a No.6 or a No.8 before, with an eye on a first-team pathway, the conversion to right-back started as an Under-16s player.
Alex Inglethorpe, Liverpool’s academy director, had a big role to play in that conversion, and has previously used a saying which perhaps sums up the dilemma Alexander-Arnold has faced in his career; “Make your strengths super-strengths, and make your weaknesses credible.”
It is fair to say that Alexander-Arnold has probably mastered the former more than the latter, but could a return to midfield help redress that balance? It looks like Klopp is at least willing to have a look.
It’s a trendy sport, football, especially when it comes to tactics. And in the Premier League right now, there seems to be a craving for full-backs who can drift into midfield and help a team control possession.
That’s a Pep Guardiola creation, really. The Manchester City boss had success previously with Philipp Lahm and David Alaba doing that at Bayern Munich, and has used the likes of Joao Cancelo, John Stones and even teenager Rico Lewis as ‘inverted full-backs’ at the Etihad. Kyle Walker, Guardiola says, struggles with the demands, and that could end up costing the England man dear.
Mikel Arteta, Guardiola’s former No.2 at City, has done similarly with Oleksandr Zinchenko at Arsenal, while even Manchester United used Aaron Wan-Bissaka, far from a natural on the ball, in a hybrid full-back/midfielder role at Nottingham Forest on Sunday, with surprisingly positive results.
Alexander-Arnold is, in terms of his technical ability, as gifted as any of those players mentioned, and if Liverpool can get the right players around him - namely, energetic, disciplined midfielders who can cover the wide areas defensively - then they too may be able to reap the rewards from English football’s latest tactical shift.
It is anticipated that this will be a summer of significant change at Liverpool, with long-serving players set to depart and others entering the latter years of their contract, their career, or both.
Klopp has made little secret of his desire for new signings, and the messaging from inside the club is that there will be money available, even if a move for Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham has been shelved.
It will be fascinating to see who Liverpool do end up bringing in. Name after name has been linked in recent weeks, and GOAL understands that the list of potential signings, drawn up long ago, is a long one, featuring the likes of Mason Mount, Alexis Mac Allister, Moises Caicedo, Matheus Nunes, Ryan Gravenberch, Teun Koopmeiners and Florentino Luis, among many others.
All of those players have something in common, besides being midfielders. They are young - aged between 20 and 25 - they have big talent and good experience, but still room for improvement and something to prove. That has been Liverpool’s modus operandi in the transfer market for years - think Andy Robertson, Gini Wijnaldum, Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz, Nunez and Gakpo - and it will remain so this summer, which promises to be one of the club’s most important in recent memory.
Getting the right players through the door is key to reviving the Reds’ fortunes, but it could also help take Alexander-Arnold’s game to the next level too. He’s suffered as much as anyone this season, but a change (or three) could be as good as a rest for the Scouse star.
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A note of caution
Of course, it is important to note in all of this that getting excited on the back of a win, however impressive, against Leeds is probably not that sensible.
Javi Gracia’s side were abject on the night and provided, with their leaky defence and their powderpuff attack, the perfect opposition for a team, and for players, looking to build some confidence, as Liverpool’s were.
Bigger challenges, certainly, lie ahead for the Reds, and for Alexander-Arnold in his new hybrid role. One wonders, for example, how he would handle midfield against a team which keeps the ball as well as Manchester City do, or which presses with the intelligence and intensity of Brighton? And it’s one thing to ask Jordan Henderson and Ibrahima Konate to look after Luis Sinisterra, but what about Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish or Vinicius Junior?
These are all questions that may or may not be answered in the coming weeks and months, but for the time being, Klopp and Alexander-Arnold have at least Klopp and Alexander-Arnold have at least given themselves another option, either in-game or for certain fixtures.
The future could well be starting here.