LAST season was one Liverpool would probably rather forget. Their first title defence in three decades petered rapidly, leaving Jurgen Klopp’s men rallying just to salvage a top-four place, and the Scouse emblem of the side, Trent Alexander-Arnold – their heir to Steven Gerrard and Anfield’s local hero – endured and unproductive and inconsistent campaign.

The gifted full-back’s season was so indifferent by his own standards that, with England bursting with high-quality options in his position, there were rumours Gareth Southgate would leave him out of the Three Lions’ Euro 2020 squad, before an injury rendered the matter moot.

His stunning, 25-yard strike in mid-December’s 3-1 defeat of Newcastle put an exclamation mark on the statement the 23-year-old has made via his performances so far this season, though: Alexander-Arnold is back.

“I’ve been waiting for that for five years now, waiting to hit it clean like that,” he said after the game. “I’ve had a few from the edge of the box and I’ve dragged them and things like that. I’ve caught that one sweet and it’s nestled in the top corner.”

And Alexander-Arnold followed up his lightning-bolt strike with another fine display three days later, in a 2-2 draw with Tottenham, creating more chances (four) and receiving more touches (101) than any other player on the pitch.

Mohamed Salah, the Premier League’s top scorer, has been lauded as arguably the world’s best player this term, and with good reason. But, after the Egyptian, no one has been more crucial to Liverpool’s challenge to Manchester City’s crown than the returned-to-form Alexander-Arnold. In the space of just six months, he’s gone from the precipice of England rejection to being arguably the best current English player.

By the age of 21, Alexander-Arnold had established himself not only as a regular starter for his boyhood club but as one of the best players in the world in his position. In Liverpool’s triumphant 2019-20 season, he notched 13 assists, one-upping the high mark he’d set the year before.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Last term, his numbers took a tumble. His return of seven league assists would be a cause for celebration for most full-backs, but, given his unique style is defined by his creativity, it signaled a stark regression for the Liverpool star.

This season, though, Alexander-Arnold stellar form eclipses even his title-winning previous best.

He has already outdone his assists tally for the entirety of 2020-21; only Salah (nine) has created more goals for others. What’s more, as per FBref.com, his per-90 average for expected assists (xA) – the metric that measures the quality of chances, rather than merely the quantity, a player creates – of 0.43 dwarfs his previous high of 0.28 from two seasons ago, meaning his creative productivity is no flash in the pan, not simply the result of a hot streak of finishing among his colleagues.

Alexander-Arnold’s form this season is about so much more than the quality of his final ball, too. He is once again proving himself to be one of the most effective playmakers in the game, regardless of position. He is producing career high per-90 averages – and by significant margins – for key passes (3.18), passes into the attacking third (6.69), passes into the opposition’s penalty area (3.06) and passes that advance the ball at least 10 yards towards the opponent’s goal (9.43).

The one consistent complaint among Alexander-Arnold’s detractors is that, for a full-back, he is defensively weak – although, according to FBref, he has made zero errors leading to an opponent’s shot this season. His defensive shortcomings have long been overstated, but the objection itself misses the point when analysing his merits: it is an oversimplification of his role to compare him to other full-backs or to categorise him as simply as a defender.

To illustrate his uniqueness, Alexander-Arnold ranks in the top one per cent among full-backs in Europe’s top five leagues over the past year when it comes to xA, shot-creating actions, progressive passes and total passes attempted. He’s in the top two per cent for assists, the top three per cent for shots and the top seven per cent for progressive passes received.

His duties go far beyond the defensive. Alexander-Arnold is key to every phase of Liverpool’s play. And few players in any position are more effective at getting their team up the pitch and through on goal.

“We adapt our game to his skills; he puts in his skills in our different plans,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said after the Newcastle win. “He obviously plays different positions on the pitch more than in the beginning because he’s just a much more mature player.

“Of course he is still in the right-back position to defend especially, then he’s a right winger, then he’s an eight, a six, a playmaker.”

Regardless of the many ways his unique role and skillset can be defined and debated, there is one appraisal of Alexander-Arnold upon which anyone whose watched him regularly this season will concur: he is back, and better than ever.