Liverpool’s Alexander-Arnold takes positives from Old Trafford horror show
The defender will use the big clash with United to gauge his development against rising star Marcus Rashford
Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski in the Champions League at Anfield on February 19th. Photograph: Reuters/Phil Noble
“Don’t get complacent or big-headed” was the direct but well-meaning advice from Cafu to Trent Alexander-Arnold when the two-times World Cup winner attended an awards ceremony in Monaco this week.
Listening to the Liverpool defender relive his uncomfortable afternoon at Manchester United last season underlines why his club and country do not – and Brazil’s most-capped player should not – worry about ego.
Old Trafford, where Jürgen Klopp’s team head in search of the Premier League leadership on Sunday, staged what Alexander-Arnold describes as the hardest moment of his career last March. The Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid would claim that low mark two months later, but United’s 2-1 victory, and the lessons from it, are seared on the 20-year-old.
That day José Mourinho tasked Romelu Lukaku with disturbing Liverpool’s central defence with his physicality and Marcus Rashford with tormenting the young right-back with his pace. Both delivered, Rashford scoring twice inside 24 minutes from United’s left flank and shaping the contest.
It was a day of despair for the boyhood Liverpool fan, but it also served as motivation for a player who would go on to feature in the World Cup for England before his teenage years were over.
“I still use that game as a learning point,” says Alexander-Arnold. “That is probably the best thing to do; look back on the harder games you’ve had, the tougher games, learn what I didn’t do well and what I could have done better.
“The Manchester United game was definitely one of those games but rather than let it get me down, or put me down and think that maybe I am not good enough at this level, it was important to use it as a positive and see it as a learning step to improve.
“I needed to use it as motivation to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again, and to prove that you are better than you showed on that day.”
In the aftermath of the Old Trafford defeat Alexander-Arnold returned to Liverpool’s academy in Kirkby, where he had been converted from a dynamic midfielder to right-back early in his apprenticeship, to discuss his performance with the academy director Alex Inglethorpe.
Graduating to the first team has not satisfied Alexander-Arnold’s appetite for listening and learning. He has now made more Premier League appearances for Liverpool than any other academy player since Steven Gerrard, and was rewarded last month with a five-year contract.
Of that conversation with Inglethorpe, he discloses: “It was about getting back to basics, not to overthink things, and think you are not good enough at that level. It is important to put it behind you.
“Alex helped me with that, the manager as well, and also the people around me who support me. They guided me through the tough time around that game. I would probably say it was the hardest point of my career up to then. Obviously the Champions League final came afterwards, which was tougher than that, but it is something that has helped me learn, progress and move forward.”
Tuesday’s Champions League stalemate with Bayern Munich was Alexander-Arnold’s first competitive start since January 12th. He suffered a knee ligament injury during the warm-up to the win at Brighton, but completed the game before discovering the full extent of the problem days later.
“It was probably the adrenaline that got me through, but after the game the pain got worse and I had to go for a scan.”
The return of the England international is timely for Klopp, Liverpool’s title prospects and for the opportunity to gauge his development against Rashford at Old Trafford 11 months on.
Rashford has been in outstanding form under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, with six goals in 12 appearances for United’s caretaker manager, and Alexander-Arnold’s respect for the striker runs deep. But there is no fear about a possible reunion.
“He is a fantastic player and someone who has got bags of potential,” the defender admits. “If he is not a world-class player now, then he is someone who can definitely reach that level.
“I think he’s going to be a really special player. He will say he has a lot to learn and a lot to improve on, but he is showing signs he is wanting to work hard and get better, and under his new manager he is doing that.”
The intense rivalry between the northwest rivals has not prevented Alexander-Arnold becoming friends with his peers at United, Jesse Lingard in particular. However, there has been no contact in the build up to a game with significant implications for Liverpool’s Premier League title challenge.
Alexander-Arnold says: “I think the England set-up has helped everyone overcome the bitter rivalries. That has probably helped us do so well internationally too, but when you are not on international duty then it is business as usual.
“There will definitely not be any texts before the game. You focus on your job and on the day there will be no smiles. We will go into battle with them and hopefully come out on top.”