Ken Early: It’s time for Alexander-Arnold to move to the middle
Liverpool and England fullback might be too good to spend his career on the right flank
Trent Alexander-Arnold scores Liverpool’s winner against Aston Villa. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/EPA
Are you watching Gary Neville! ” shouted Jamie Carragher. Has any brilliant injury-time winner ever been greeted quite like that? People got annoyed. Trent Alexander-Arnold produces a Steven Gerrard moment, and Carragher’s first comment is about an argument he’s been having with his co-pundit? How dare he make it about them.
Except . . . it sort of was about them. Alexander-Arnold has been trapped in a grim cycle of “answering the critics” since being dropped from the England squad last month. The eye of narrative Sauron has whipped around and zeroed in on him, and now everything he does has an extra layer of meaning as the latest strike in the ongoing infowar with the doubters and critics. An assist for Diogo Jota at Arsenal the weekend before last – can you really afford to leave him out, Gareth? A mistake to let in Marco Asensio in Madrid last Tuesday -– this is what Southgate was worried about. A last-minute winner to beat Aston Villa on Saturday – what a way to answer the critics . . . are you watching, Gary Neville?
It’s plain that Alexander-Arnold has himself been sucked into this unfortunate dynamic. Shortly after full-time on Saturday he posted a picture of himself celebrating the goal, kissing the badge, captioned “Are you not entertained?”
Sustained critical scrutiny is a new experience for the reigning PFA Young Player of the Year, who was barely 21 when Jamie Carragher first hailed him as “Kevin de Bruyne at right-back.”
He’s already won titles at national, European and world level. And now he suddenly finds himself being discussed as though he is a liability, a weak link, a clear and present danger to England’s dreams of Euro 2021 glory?
Gary Neville has warned him to “get serious about his defending”, Rio Ferdinand has advised him to “go back to basics”, Ashley Cole has suggested he needed to look at his “foot patterns”, and last week Carragher demonstrated on CBS Sports how he should be bending his knees when jockeying opponents.
Never happens to Kevin
You know who this sort of thing never happens to? Kevin de Bruyne. It’s not as though De Bruyne is never involved in a defensive shambles. There have been a couple of occasions this season when he has been exposed by system breakdown. Remember Giovani Lo Celso’s goal in Spurs’ 2-0 win over City in November, or Luke Shaw’s in Manchester United’s 2-0 win at the Etihad? In both cases, a City full back was caught out of position and De Bruyne was forced into a doomed 50-yard chase after an escaping attacker, red-faced and blowing hard.
Do you remember people talking about what a defensive liability Kevin de Bruyne is? “De Bruyne’s fine, as long as the ball doesn’t go behind him”?
Do you remember pundits queuing up to offer coaching tips as to how de Bruyne could avoid these mistakes in future? No, because everyone knows that running after breakaway attackers is not Kevin de Bruyne’s job.
It’s different when you’re Kevin de Bruyne at right back. Until recently, Alexander-Arnold seemed content to excel in his adopted position, telling Carragher last summer: “I think about how I can go about becoming the best right back the Premier League has ever seen . . . At right-back I am finding I have more touches of the ball than anyone, even more than I would in midfield. For now, it’s not broke, so no need to fix it.”
How about now? Liverpool’s system has broken down. Alexander-Arnold’s assists have dried up just as his defending has come under more pressure. Ploughing his little furrow out wide, he gets much criticism and little glory. His goal on Saturday was a glimpse of what might be possible if he played in the middle. Imagine he could do that full-time, like the other Kevin de Bruyne, instead of having to think about foot patterns so Ferland Mendy doesn’t walk past him again on Wednesday night.
Remember he is only a right back by accident. That was the position that was free in the first team when he happened to come along. Before then he was a central midfielder. As Ian Barrigan, Alexander-Arnold’s coach at Country Park under-sevens, told The Athletic: “He’d always play in the middle of midfield because he was the best player.”
The professional level is not fundamentally different: the best players still play in the middle. Sometimes they start on the outside, like Messi or Ronaldo or Zidane drifting wide to receive, but they end up on the inside, because that’s where the game is decided. You have to be good to play inside because it’s a 360 degree game. A full back stays on the outside, playing a 180-degree game. They are by definition a secondary or support player.
A list of the best full backs of the last 20 years would include names such as Andy Robertson, Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, Patrice Evra, Ashley Cole, Marcelo, Cafu, Bixente Lizarazu, and Roberto Carlos.
What do they have in common? First, they’re 90-minute runners with the energy to tear up and down the field. That’s the indispensable quality for a fullback. They’re often a bit one-footed, which is okay because they only have to kick the ball in one direction. They’re mentally sharp: dependable, alert, tactically aware, always ready to help out. And no matter how good they are, they were never the best player on their team.
Alexander-Arnold is not the best player at Liverpool, but unlike Andy Robertson, he has the potential to be. Now he has to ask himself an awkward question: am I too good for this? If he’s honest with himself, it’s clear what his answer will be. Since he was ambitious enough to talk openly about reinventing the entire concept of right back, it’s a safe bet he believes he’s good enough to succeed as a central midfielder.
If he pushes for this switch he will be accused of egotism, as was David Beckham, another brilliant wide player who confused many with his ambition to play in the middle. Alex Ferguson thought Beckham should focus on what he was good at – running up and down and crossing.
But is it ego to want to develop your talent to its fullest extent? Beckham failed, but the list of players who have successfully made the switch is long. Fabinho was a right back until 2016. Steven Gerrard broke into the Liverpool team as a right back.
At Bayern, the switch from full back to central midfield is practically a club tradition. Philipp Lahm played left- or right back for nearly a decade for Bayern and Germany, until Pep Guardiola arrived in 2013 and decided he was wasted on the periphery. Since then, Joshua Kimmich has followed a similar trajectory at a younger age, establishing himself in the Bayern and Germany teams as a raiding right back until it was clear he was simply too good not to use in central midfield.
David Alaba played at left back for Bayern for years but in latter years featured more in central defence. It’s always been a different story with Austria, where he’s been the best player in the squad for a decade, and so has almost always played in midfield, because that is where the best players play.
With Georginio Wijnaldum leaving, Jordan Henderson injured, James Milner getting old, and Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struggling, midfield places are up for grabs at Liverpool in a way they haven’t been for years.
If Alexander-Arnold believes he is good enough to become the top player at Liverpool, this is the moment to make the move. The alternative is to stay out wide, shuttling up and down, and watch as Curtis Jones drinks his milkshake.