Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold has been a crucial cog in the Premier League winning machine. He has already had a Ballon D’or nomination, been featured in multiple Team of The Year squads and even broken his own PL assist record for a defender. Whilst he is well on his way to becoming an all-time great at full-back, debate about his future position rages on. Many pundits and fans, consider his passing range to be wasted in his current position arguing that his defensive positioning also leaves a lot to be desired. They would like to see the 22 year-old moved into midfield. England manager Gareth Southgate echoed these sentiments when he recently decided to “have a look at playing him in a slightly more advanced role” in England’s recent World Cup qualifier against Andorra.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is the best right-back in the worldJurgen Klopp
Jurgen Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was furious with his England counterpart’s decision to move Alexander-Arnold into midfield during the international break. Baffled by the experiment, the German, in his press conference before the match versus Leeds, “why would you make the best right-back in the world a midfielder?” The comment caused a stir on social media, where the prevailing narrative is that the Liverpudlian is considerably worse defensively than his peers. In this article, I dispel that myth and outline why he is without question the best in the world in his position.
A Not-Too Bad Nine
It is unfathomable that an elite manager such as Jurgen Klopp would persist with a player who was as defensively poor as many would have you believe. Surely if he was that bad, then Liverpool would not be the team that conceded the least goals in the Premier League in two of the last three completed seasons, and that haven’t conceded a league goal from open play this season.
Even last season, when Virgil Van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez were out for the majority of the season, Liverpool only conceded ten more league goals (42) than champions Man City (32), with only nine goals coming down the right-hand side. Courtesy of Andrew Beasley (twitter @BassTunedToRed) four of those goals came against Aston Villa, in the ill-fated 7–2, two of which were deflections. Two were conceded against Leicester, a James Maddison free-kick which arguably should not have stood, and a late Harvey Barnes goal as the reds desperately pushed for an equaliser.
A disastrous attempt to clear the ball against Southampton, a Leeds goal twelve minutes into the first game of the season and a fantastic Son Heung-Min counter-attack were the other three. The Spurs goal in particular sums up the issue with judging the Liverpool academy graduate’s defensive abilities in comparison to traditional right-backs; he often finds himself further up the pitch as a result of his role in Jurgen Klopp’s system. It is crucial to understand that Trent’s primary role in this Liverpool team is to attack, to create, not to defend. Although it must be noted that he can defend when necessary and has had stellar performances against some of the worlds best attackers.
Over-Played, Over-Analysed, Over-Criticised
As a result of the injuries to Liverpool’s backline last season, Jurgen Klopp was unable to rotate his full-backs as much as he had planned to before the season started in order to maintain stability. This led to Alexander-Arnold not being able to have a proper rest, in a season where he struggled with COVID in pre-season and then injuries which led to an impression of him having a poor season. It is obvious that he is held to higher standards due to his performance levels in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons, and this was highlighted by Southgate’s reasoning for his exclusion from the England squad.
He told the media that he didn’t think Trent had “played at the level that he found in the last couple of years.” Many of the right-back’s detractors use the fact that he was dropped from the England squad to attempt to validate their argument, however the England manager acknowledged the impact that injuries and COVID had on the decision and that ultimately he needed to work with Trent to get the best out of him for the national team.
The speculation over his involvement in the European Championships led to an over-analysis of his performances and fed into the over-criticism of his form. His season was far from the disaster it was made out to be, especially considering the instability in Liverpool’s defence last season (they had 16 different centre-back partnerships in the league). In fact, despite the criticism and constant dissection of his performances, his defensive stats were right up there with Achraf Hakimi, Kyle Walker, Reece James, Joao Cancelo and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, all of whom were often touted as better than him. Even in his ‘worst season’, compared to those players, he tackled the highest percentage of dribblers (57.9%), ranked second for successful pressures (35.1%) and clearances (2.11) whilst also committing the least fouls (0.62).
The only negative aspect of Trent’s defending statistically last campaign was his aerial duel success rate (22.2%), which was considerably the worst. The 2019/20 PFA Young Player of The Year rebounded into arguably the most complete version of himself towards the end of last season, earning his place back in the England squad before injury cruelly cut his summer short. This progress seems to have continued this season after a proper pre-season. So far, his aerial duel success rate ranks only behind Walker’s (75%), his blocks have increased from 1.31 per 90 last season to 2, and he has 2.75 interceptions per 90 compared to 1.45 in the 2020/21 campaign. Trent was actually already on par with his rivals despite the popular narrative, but his numbers so far this season indicate that he has levelled up his defensive abilities, so has this negatively impacted his attacking threat?
“David Beckham and De Bruyne at right-back”Gary Neville
Pretty impressive praise, especially coming from a Manchester United legend, but that is how Gary Neville described the Liverpool man on Monday Night Football. The 22 year-old equalled Neville’s career assists in the Premier League with his low cross to Mohamed Salah for the reds opener on Sunday. He has been the creative lynchpin of one of the most successful sides in recent history, even breaking his own PL assist record for a defender. However, he was lambasted last campaign for being wasteful with his deliveries, but if it wasn’t for the profligacy of his colleagues further up the pitch, he’d have probably hit double figures for assists for the third season running (his xA per 90 was 0.24, just short of his average of 0.25 from the two seasons before).
This season Trent’s offence has escalated to an even higher level, he has already created twenty chances in just four games (seven clear of Jack Grealish and team-mate Mohamed Salah). His shot-creating actions have increased from an average of 3.68 per 90 over the past three years to 7 per 90 this season. If he continues at this rate throughout the campaign it will likely be his most productive season yet.
To conclude, Trent Alexander-Arnold at just 22 years old, is one of the best footballers in the world, never-mind just in his position. He is a part of one of the best defences in the world, and has taken his defending to another level over the last couple of months after his surprise exodus from the England squad and the anomaly that was Liverpool’s 2020/21 season. Meanwhile, none of his peers come close to his attacking abilities, which is more important than ever for a full-back in the modern game. With his regular partners back at the heart of Liverpool’s defence, it’s likely that Trent will further cement his legacy as a PL great and potential future Ballon D’or winner this upcoming season. He deserves a lot more respect from pundits, journalists and fans. He deserves to be acknowledged as what he is and has been for a couple of years now: the best right-back in world football.