Tactical Snapshot: Who Really Is Liverpool’s Right Back?
Our data analysts dive into Stats Perform’s advanced metrics to pull out the key tactical snapshots from the latest Premier League action. Data visualizations, AI models and the occasional Arsenal bias can all be guaranteed, as Jonny Whitmore and the team dive into the numbers each week.
Another comfortable win for Liverpool. More goals from Mohamed Salah. More assists for a Liverpool fullback. Getting predictable, isn’t it?
Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp, has rightly gained a lot of praise over the years for his subtle tactical tweaks that have preserved an unpredictable element to his Liverpool teams without damaging their winning formula.
Whether he’s your first choice England right back or not (please save this debate until the next international break), there is no doubt that Trent Alexander-Arnold is one of the most talented right back in the world. But does he still play as a “right back” for Liverpool?
Trent Alexander-Arnold & Jordan Henderson
Trent has been afforded more positional freedom with Liverpool this season when they have been in possession, allowing him to drift inside in more advanced areas. The key man to facilitate this change has been Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson.
This could be seen last night in the build-up to Trent’s only shot of the game against Everton.
When Liverpool had controlled position in the opposition half, Jordan Henderson took up wider positions near the touchline. In this instance, he in the position where you might expect a traditional right back to be.
By taking up this space, it allowed an advancing Alexander-Arnold to move more centrally into the right half-space. A few moments later and he finds himself with time and space on the edge of the area to get a shot away.
These patterns are visible in their touch maps from the Merseyside Derby too. The English full-back only had one touch in a position that was wider than width of the opposition penalty box (excluding corners). While still assuming his defensive responsibilities in wide areas, he drifted more centrally the further into the opposition half he got.
Meanwhile his England and club teammate, Henderson, took his most advanced touches in wide areas. Five of his six most advanced touches were in areas outside the width of the opposition penalty box, very much in contrast to Trent.
This has been a common theme in Liverpool’s recent games, especially with the now injury-free midfield pairing of Fabinho and Thiago at the base of midfield providing cover for Henderson’s other responsibilities.
It is even more apparent if we compare where the two players’ have taken their touches between Premier League 2020-21 and the current season.
As showcased from the Everton game, Alexander-Arnold is taking fewer touches in advanced wide areas and is instead getting on the ball more often in central areas this season. The most notable drop has been in the wide zone just beyond the edge of opposition penalty box, where is taking more than three fewer touches per 90.
Henderson’s role change is clear at the season level too. With his central midfield partners covering the deeper areas, he has increased the number of touches he is taking in wide positions on the right hand side.
When in the opposition’s half, he is taking an average of six more touches per 90 on the far right hand side of the pitch (outside of the width of the penalty area).
Henderson & Trent Creativity
The inevitability of their roles this season is a change in the output of both players. The most obvious of which is in how often they cross the ball.
In the Premier League, Trent has been crossing the ball less often from open play compared to last season (3.8 vs 5.9 open play crosses per 90), while Henderson has been crossing more (2.3 vs 1.5).
Naturally, you may be thinking that this could stifle Alexander-Arnold’s creative contributions. Thankfully for Liverpool fans, it hasn’t. Compared to last season, he is actually creating more and even better quality chances for his teammates.
He has created more open play chances for his teammates than any other defender in the Premier League this season (19). Similarly, no player has made open play passes that were more likely to end in assist than Alexander-Arnold, ranking top in the Premier League with 3.8 expected assists (xA). The threat of his average pass has more than doubled too.
Level with him in the overall rankings for open play chances created (19) is Henderson, whose crossing has helped him create an additional chance per 90 for his teammates this season (1.7 open play chances created per 90).
Stylistically, the type of position that Alexander-Arnold is creating opportunities from has changed. 42% of the open play chances he has created in the Premier League this season have come from outside the width of the penalty box on the right hand side. This is only marginally lower than last season (43%).
The real difference is if we look halve the width of this channel again to look at only those that originated from close to the touchline. 18% of his chances created originated from these areas in the Premier League last season, compared to 5% from this season (only one pass).
While the absolute numbers are low this season, I would expect both of these proportions to drift even further from last season’s benchmarks as Trent continues to exploit his new freedom to play in central areas.
The type of chances he is creating may have changed, but the quality of his final ball hasn’t. Teammate Mohamed Salah (8), Manchester United’s Paul Pogba (7) and Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus (6) are the only players in the Premier League this season to have assisted more goals from open play than Trent.
While the focus of this article has been about how Jordan Henderson’s positioning has benefited his England teammate, Trent Alexander-Arnold, it shouldn’t be underestimated how much the numerical advantage and defensive cover that he provides on the right hand side has also aided Mohamed Salah’s form.
This all opens up a wider question in football. Is a position really the best way to describe a player in modern football? That is where roles may provide the answer but that’s a conversation for another day…