The Week So Far: International Eye
Welcome to The Analysis, our rolling football blog where we try and make sense of everything that just happened.
Trent Crossing the Channel?
In an England squad stacked with right-backs, it seems unfathomable to consider leaving the Premier League’s most productive crosser out of that equation – something that once looked like a reality born out of choice. Now, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s Euro 2020 chances hinge on a fitness race after an injury blow against Austria.
So, what exactly will the Three Lions sacrifice if Alexander-Arnold doesn’t recover in time?
The obvious would be his crosses, and a whole lot of crosses at that. Alexander-Arnold led the Premier League for crosses (297) in 2020-21, narrowly edging out his partner on the opposite flank Andrew Robertson (294). 199 of those came from open play, which was naturally another league-high, but to such an extent that only seven other players recorded more crosses in total – including corners – than Alexander-Arnold’s tally from open-play alone.
He also led the Premier League by a considerable margin for passes played into the box (413), whilst ranking second for touches (3,416), joint-seventh for passes (2,381) and fifth for chance creation (77). The 77 chances he created were the most by a defender, seven of which resulted in an assist for a goal.
All that during what was considered a down year for Alexander-Arnold, where he failed to hit the 2018-19 and 2019-20 heights of 12 and 13 assists respectively – both of which set records for a defender in a Premier League campaign.
It’s those elements that make Alexander-Arnold’s profile unique to the other right-backs in contention, with the 22-year-old effectively able to operate as a midfielder in Jürgen Klopp’s system. Over the 2020-21 league season, the Liverpool player averaged 0.20 expected assists from open play per 90, well above the other trio of right-sided defensive options in the squad. Kieran Trippier (0.12) and Reece James (0.11) posted similar averages to one another but at nearly half the creative output of Alexander-Arnold, while Kyle Walker fell well below with 0.04 xA per 90.
With Harry Kane taking up deeper positions, feeding the ball into the box isn’t necessarily a focal point of England’s plan without Dominic Calvert-Lewin on the pitch, though another option would be to shift some of the creative emphasis from full-back over to the left, where Luke Shaw created just five fewer chances (72) and provided two fewer assists (five) than Alexander-Arnold in 2020-21.
Who hypothetically replaces an injured Alexander-Arnold in the squad is relatively arbitrary given the volume of cover and different skillsets at right-back, but the logical argument could be James Ward-Prowse. Whilst a designated set-piece specialist á la an NFL special teams would usually be a luxury, it’s a luxury that can be afforded with an extended squad. Ward-Prowse (251) joined both Liverpool full-backs as the only players to attempt 250+ crosses in the 2020-21 Premier League, with the Southampton skipper assisting more goals from set pieces (seven) than anyone across the league.
Let’s not forget this is an England team that scored nine of their 12 goals from set pieces (75%) when football oh-so-nearly came home at World Cup 2018, where champions France (six) were the only other nation to net more than five times via set-piece situations.
Much of the excitement surrounding England stems from a young, attacking core of talent but the double-barrelled delivery of an Alexander-Arnold or a Ward-Prowse could ultimately prove invaluable towards delivering on England’s pre-tournament promise and expectation.
Karim Benzema made his return to the French national team after a near six-year absence in their Euro 2020 warm up meeting with Wales. The forward looked incredibly keen to show French boss Didier Deschamps what the side had been missing since his last outing in October 2015.
Benzema recorded nine shots in the match, six more than any other player in the game and only three fewer than the entire Welsh team (12). This was the most shots that Benzema’s ever had for France since debuting in March 2007 and almost double his previous tally of most shots without scoring for his national side (five).
Across 201 matches in recorded history (since 2006), Benzema’s tally of nine shots is the most by a player for France within a single game, fair evidence to why he deserved to feature in our list of 20 players to watch at Euro 2020.
Unfortunately for Benzema, one of his nine shots saw his penalty saved by Welsh goalkeeper Danny Ward – the third consecutive penalty that he’s missed for France following a couple in 2014. He may have convinced Deschamps that he deserves a start in their opening game against Germany at Euro 2020 but will probably have to join the back of the queue as a penalty taker.
Antoine Griezmann appeared in Benzema’s last appearance for France in 2015, but for Kylian Mbappé it was the first time the two had played alongside each other in a competitive fixture. No player provided more passes to Benzema than Mbappé (10) while nobody created more chances for the Real Madrid striker than Griezmann (two). This trio certainly look set to be one to fear at the Euros this summer.