Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City led to even more debate around Trent Alexander-Arnold. We take a look at the increasingly versatile England international.
As the heavyweight Premier League contest between Manchester City and Liverpool was in its concluding moments on Saturday, Sky Sports co-commentator Gary Neville named Trent Alexander-Arnold as his player of the match in the 1-1 draw.
The Liverpool star produced a sumptuous second-half equaliser at the Etihad Stadium after Erling Haaland had notched his 50th Premier League goal earlier in the game to give Man City the lead.
However, it probably shouldn’t be a shock by this point that being considered the best player on the pitch wasn’t enough to prevent yet another debate on the pros and cons of Alexander-Arnold, arguably the most discussed player in English football over the last few years.
The questions around Liverpool’s vice-captain being either too good on the ball or not good enough defensively to be a right-back haven’t stopped Jürgen Klopp from playing him there, even if the German coach has attempted to have the best of both worlds by evolving the player’s role in recent months.
At the start of the season, we questioned whether Alexander-Arnold would continue in his new ‘hybrid’ role, where he often drifted into midfield. It worked spectacularly well in the latter part of last season, producing seven Premier League assists in 10 games having only managed two in 27 prior to that as Liverpool ended an otherwise poor season strongly.
Funnily enough, his average position for Liverpool this season has almost been a hybrid of those two different roles. He isn’t as tied to the right side as he was for most of the 2022-23 campaign, but he’s also not venturing centrally as often as he was in the final few games.
This is Alexander-Arnold’s touch zone map for his first 27 Premier League games of last season:
This is his map for his final 10 games:
And this is his map so far this season (also Premier League only):
On the surface, it seems like more of a balance. While Alexander-Arnold was seeing his performances and that of the team improve markedly in the final 10 games of 2022-23, whoever was playing as the right-sided centre-back for Liverpool was having to cover a lot of the pitch when the ball was turned over quickly.
Neville has said Alexander-Arnold needs to “get serious” about his defending on multiple occasions, but only 12 players in the Premier League who have played a minimum of 500 minutes this season have won possession more than his rate of 7.4 times per 90.
It’s not just because of his journeys into midfield either. As the graphic below shows, plenty of his defensive work is taking place where you would expect of a right-back in a team that likes to play high up the pitch.
He is being dribbled past more often this season, up to 2.1 times per 90 from 1.4 last season in all competitions. That figure was undeniably increased by the performance of Jérémy Doku on Saturday though, with the City winger completing 11 dribbles, the most in a single Premier League game since September 2021 (Adama Traoré vs Brentford, also 11). It was also the most a player has completed in a single league game against Liverpool on record (since 2006-07).
Pep Guardiola’s main tactic was clear; give the ball to Doku and let him do what he does best against Liverpool’s right side. The former Anderlecht and Rennes youngster certainly kept Alexander-Arnold busy. Doku topped the game’s standings for ball carry distance, ball carry progress, final-third passes, touches in the opposition box, progressive carries, dribbles completed, chances created and expected assists. However, Doku ultimately ended the game without an actual goal or assist, while Alexander-Arnold slammed in an equaliser and promptly stood in front of the home fans with his finger to his mouth.
Dribble success can be a difficult metric to provide context to. A successful dribble is when a player beats an opponent while retaining possession. Stopping Doku from dribbling past you is significantly easier said than done, though.
During their battle on Saturday, there was more than one occasion when Alexander-Arnold was clearly standing off the Belgian, waiting to engage when more cover appeared around him, usually in the form of Joël Matip, Alexis Mac Allister and/or Dominik Szoboszlai. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but the England international only attempted three tackles all game, showing how little he actually engaged in a direct battle to win the ball off Doku.
It certainly wasn’t just his goal that led to Alexander-Arnold getting player of the match at the Etihad, though. Of Liverpool players, he had the most passes into the final third (14), twice the final-third entries of any teammate (8) and he won possession the most times (10).
According to Opta definitions, Alexander-Arnold didn’t make a single error that led to a goal last season, and only made two that led to opposition shots. This season he has already made two errors leading to goals (vs Bournemouth and Newcastle United), and three leading to shots.
While these kind of numbers can make it look as though Alexander-Arnold is getting worse at defending rather than better, they again must be viewed with context. Defending is the part of football most dependent on the team as a whole. Klopp is often at pains to state this whenever one of his players is singled out for their defensive work, most recently explaining why he trusts Mac Allister in the deepest midfielder role, primarily because if the rest of the team is compact and does their duty from a defensive standpoint, pretty much anyone could play there in theory.
Some of Alexander-Arnold’s own defensive numbers might be down from last season, but there is no question that Liverpool are stronger at the back on the whole, which suggests his role in the overall unit is working. After 13 games, they have conceded 11 goals in the Premier League this season (second fewest in the league) from expected goals (xG) against of 16 (fourth fewest). At the same stage last season, they had conceded 16 goals (joint-sixth fewest) from an xG against of 18.86 (ninth most).
If people question Alexander-Arnold’s defending, there are rarely any concerns about his ability on the ball. His proficiency in dictating play and creating chances has made him a key member of Klopp’s side since his late teens and even led to England boss Gareth Southgate using him in midfield in recent games.
His club manager has flirted with a similar idea in the form of his hybrid role, but even that seems to be lessening this season. Klopp still clearly sees Alexander-Arnold’s best position as right-back, even if it isn’t always in the most traditional sense, primarily because he knows he thrives when he has space and time.
After the City draw, Klopp said: “Trent made the difference today. Not only that he scored, he was in a lot of other moments as well… One day in England somebody else makes the lineups, that’s absolutely fine, put Trent wherever you think is his best position.
“[But] before we started talking again about positioning, I think it helps when he can be on the right wing from time to time as well. So, you just have this hiding space and can influence the game massively from there, how we all know and saw in the past.”
When Alexander-Arnold changed roles last season, his involvement in shot-ending attacking sequences per 90 in the Premier League went up from 4.4 to 6.2, though it must be said that Liverpool were generally more fluent and playing better, which would have helped. He has gone back down to 5.0 this season, but that could simply be down to the team being less reliant on him. Liverpool’s midfield underperformed as a whole in 2022-23, but the arrivals of Szoboszlai, Mac Allister and Ryan Gravenberch have refreshed things there, and reduced any reliance on Trent.
He has three assists in all competitions this season, but just one in the Premier League (which came from a corner vs Aston Villa); notably down from the seven assists in 10 games he ended last season with. He is still crafting opportunities from open play, though, averaging 1.5 chances created per 90, up from 1.3 last season, although fewer of those are coming from crosses.
As you can see below from his open-play chances created in the Premier League both last season and this, he has gone from firing in plenty of crosses from the right of the penalty area to hardly doing so at all in 2023-24, with the majority coming from deeper areas.
Alexander-Arnold averaged 4.3 open-play crosses in 2022-23, but that is down at 2.8 per 90 this season. In fact, he has never averaged fewer than 4.1 open-play crosses per 90 across a full season in his career, though his open-play chances created aren’t noticeably lower than his career average, so he’s staying more or less as creative even though he isn’t firing the volume of crosses into the box he once was.
That could change of course, but it may also be a sign of Liverpool’s evolution under Klopp in the last couple of years, and Alexander-Arnold has had to evolve with it. Have there been teething problems? Sure, but there remains an ability that few in the game can match. That was on show when, despite Liverpool staying in the game, they had not really looked like they were about to draw level with last season’s treble winners until Alexander-Arnold ran onto Mohamed Salah’s pass, took a touch and expertly guided a shot into the far corner from a chance with an xG value of just 0.03.
Alexander-Arnold took on the vice-captaincy from the departed James Milner in the summer and said at the time: “I want to lead by example, I want to make sure that I take responsibility for what I do and how the team performs as well. It’s an amazing position to be in but there’s more responsibility on me to make sure that we succeed and we achieve the things we want to this season.”
The debate will probably rage on, but Trent Alexander-Arnold will be confident his football can continue to help metaphorically put his finger to his lips.