FootballPremier League

If it isn’t broken, why fix it? There’s no need to move Alexander-Arnold away from his right-back spot

February 27, 2020

A SIDE sprinting unopposed for the Premier League finish line versus one struggling to keep on running. A manager revered worldwide up against one considered to be a break glass option as the threat of relegation became clear.

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool vs David Moyes’ West Ham United was supposed to be a walkover for the team in red – yet it proved to be anything but. Gary Neville became excitable in the Sky Sports studio, and the moans and groans of the perpetual pessimists were heard once more at Anfield as the Hammers had the temerity to take the lead and hold it for 14 minutes.

Eventually, Liverpool prevailed. Normal business resumed. And that was thanks in no small part to the brilliance of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Yet again. In the game against West Ham, the 21-year-old assisted two goals and was denied a third by the referee assistant’s flag. 

It made it 12 Premier League assists for the season – second only to Manchester City’s midfield playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who has 16. The Belgian – estimated to be worth around £135million – is seven years Arnold’s senior, and also plays in a more advanced position. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the lad from West Derby has outperformed Pep Guardiola’s main man in assists across this season and last with 24 and counting – six more than De Bruyne and Andy Robertson in joint second.

If further proof of his goal creation prowess was needed it comes in the fact that only Cesc Fàbregas (20 years 134 days) and Wayne Rooney (21 years and 63 days) reached 25 Premier League assists at a younger age than Alexander-Arnold (21 years and 140 days). Again, their positions on the pitch, allied with the age they made their debuts at, offered them an advantage over Arnold.

Such showings have resulted in a recurring debate about Arnold’s future. If he’s that good back there, goes the logic, what could he do in a starting position further up the pitch? Many think he will follow in the footsteps of his childhood hero Steven Gerrard, who made his first steps in the first team at right back before going on to star in central midfield, on the right and in an advanced role behind the striker.

For now though, if it isn’t broken, why fix it? Versus the Hammers, Arnold, who has nine England caps to his name, had 100 touches, made 34 successful passes, put in 19 crosses, created six chances, had four shots and made three tackles as well as the two assists. Teams are struggling to stop him, while he is also first choice for Liverpool on set pieces. The best naysayers can conjure up is that he is “wasteful”, or that he “spams crosses”. Yet this doesn’t hold up to much examination.

When Liverpool not only has a traditional coaching set up but also a team of statistical researchers behind the scenes pouring over every action on the pitch and assessing how it affects goal probability, you can be sure the players are doing exactly what they are expected to do. Further, it is a mark of Arnold’s confidence that even when things aren’t going his way, he has the drive to keep going, to keep trying, when other players might turn to the safe option or look to pad their playing stats by banking easier passes to feet.

Arnold’s contribution from right back has been a long time in the making and while a shift to midfield may happen one day – particular given the development of Welsh teenager Neco Williams at right back – a move to midfield doesn’t look likely anytime soon. From the day he appeared on the right side of defence as a fresh-faced 16-year-old in a friendly at Swindon Town, the Scouser has been working with Liverpool’s coaches on perfecting his performance in the position, watching Philipp Lahm and Dani Alves in particular. 

And against Leicester City on Boxing Day he demonstrated just how devastating to an opposition’s defence he can be from that position. On the ground of the team that at that time was pushing Liverpool hardest for top spot, he scored one goal, provided two assists, and delivered the corner from which Liverpool won a penalty.

He also made 60 passes and had more touches (105) than any other player on the field that evening. The graphics and the team sheets nominally show Arnold as a right back and that might conjure images of players that prompted Jamie Carragher to once declare “no one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville”.

Yet Arnold isn’t a stopper or a spoiler. He can tackle and tussle with the best of them but he’s a matchwinner and a playmaker. A constant threat and key weapon in Liverpool’s attacking armoury. And if he was moved forward would his crosses be quite so potent?

Trent Alexander-Arnold is already a Champions League and Club World Cup winner. He’ll soon be a Premier League winner, too. He’s rated in the £100m bracket, he’s played for England and he’s even in the Guinness Book of Records for the most number of assists in a season by a Premier League defender.

Speaking of his ability, Jurgen Klopp once said: “If you see the crosses, they are a little bit dirty." They are. And right now, the only plans Arnold at right back makes a mess of are the opposition’s. While that remains the case, a midfield move makes little sense.