Trent Alexander-Arnold

Should Trent Alexander-Arnold start for England at World Cup?

Much uncertainty remains over Trent Alexander-Arnold's role in the England set-up despite his inclusion in the World Cup squad. Sam McGuire assesses if he's a weakness - or a wildcard.

Trent Alexander-Arnold showcased the good, the bad and the ugly sides of his game in Liverpool's final away game before the World Cup, as the Reds eked out a 2-1 win at Tottenham win.

It was a performance that perfectly encapsulated exactly why Gareth Southgate may be reluctant to entrust the 24-year-old in his backline in Qatar.

Alexander-Arnold was named in the 26-man squad, though he does appear to be at least the third-choice right-back option behind Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier.

There is an argument to be made that he could well be fourth choice. Ben White, though naturally a centre-back, has impressed for Arsenal this term at right-back and using him as a full-back does seem like something Southgate may opt to do.


Why bother taking him?

So why was Alexander-Arnold even picked? The obvious answer is that Walker and Trippier are just back from injury while Reece James is ruled out. But there might be something else to it.

It might be the same reason Southgate made the surprise decision to name James Maddison in his squad. The England boss has his guys and he trusts them. But in the past, he has been reluctant to take a chance on a wildcard.

Alexander-Arnold can be a match-winner. No other nation has a player with his ability at full-back and, in knockout football, his decisive style could be a difference-maker.

It was strange that while on commentary for Sky Sports last weekend, Gary Neville claimed the Liverpool-born full-back could cost England in a knockout game at the World Cup.

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Focus on the positives

He focused on the negative instead of the positive. Furthermore, it was a bold suggestion given the Reds have won every trophy available to them and reached the Champions League final on three occasions with Alexander-Arnold as their starting right-back.

However, you do have to acknowledge that Jurgen Klopp often sets his side up to cover the No.66’s weaknesses while playing to his strengths. At their best, Liverpool are able to exaggerate the good while hiding the bad and papering over the ugly.

Southgate isn’t going to allow his right wing-back that sort of influence on the team and that is the key difference.

For example, in Alexander-Arnold’s last start for England, he attempted just 28 passes in 62 minutes against Hungary. He managed 43 against Austria, 20 against Belgium and 40 in a start against Denmark. For Liverpool, he’s attempting, on average, 63 passes per 90 minutes.

At club level, he is encouraged to take risks in possession. Against Spurs in those opening 45 minutes, he was pulling the strings for the Reds.

Trent Alexander-Arnold was influential in Liverpool's win over Tottenham
Trent Alexander-Arnold was influential in Liverpool's win over Tottenham

In the above screenshot, Alexander-Arnold is playing a first-time pass that is the definition of perfectly weighted. Darwin Nunez did not have to break his stride as the ball lands at his feet.

In the blink of an eye, Liverpool go from being under pressure in their defensive third to being in possession of the ball in their offensive third, with Darwin one-on-one with Emerson Royal in a fair bit of space.

After carrying the ball forward, his cross-cum-shot just misses Hugo Lloris’ far post.

Another Alexander-Arnold ball sets Liverpool on the attack
Another Alexander-Arnold ball sets Liverpool on the attack

'A cheat code player'

It was a pass he repeated later on in the half, this time allowing Darwin to square Eric Dier up (as seen above).

Had the Uruguayan’s touch been better, he was attacking the penalty area. His loose touch was intercepted by the Tottenham defender. For that moment to come about, all it took was one swing of Alexander-Arnold’s boot.

The Liverpool playmaker is regularly the player tasked with getting the ball into places, spaces and areas where the Reds are more likely to score.

The 17-cap England international was a cheat code for Klopp’s side in the opening half, continually breaking Tottenham’s lines with his incisive passes.

Tottenham's shape suggests they have anticipated another Alexander-Arnold key pass attempt
Tottenham's shape suggests they have anticipated another Alexander-Arnold key pass attempt

Here, the hosts seem to anticipate the ball over the top, likely due to the shape of Alexander-Arnold as he strikes the ball, and the defensive line takes a step back.

He instead, cleverly, fizzes a pass into Mohamed Salah, who tries to flick the ball to Roberto Firmino while spinning in behind Ben Davies and attacking the space.

Had Salah managed to pull it off, he’s through on goal and miles onside if the Brazilian maestro can return the favour. However, the flick is poorly executed and Spurs manage to thwart the move before it turns dangerous.

But, again, Alexander-Arnold’s use of the ball creates the situation. The hosts go from having eight men behind the ball to scrambling back to stop the away side from doubling their lead.

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Trent the defender v Trent the creator

The Three Lions aren’t set up to benefit from Trent's playmaking ability. If you strip that away, you are left with Alexander-Arnold the defender and he isn’t in the same sphere as Alexander-Arnold the creator.

Though the Spurs goal arrived down the Liverpool left, it was the Liverpool right that was targeted throughout. The hosts regularly looked to hit Ryan Sessegnon in space with the wing-back pushing on and they had success with this approach.

Plenty of teams have this season.

There was one moment in the first half when Alexander-Arnold was far too narrow during the build-up and he was caught under the ball as Dier switched the ball from right to left. Sessegnon was able to take the ball in his stride and his first touch got him into the penalty area. Fortunately for the visitors, Ibrahima Konate was covering and the right-back wasn’t punished.

But this occurred just minutes after he had been caught in possession in his own half. He recovered well initially but then needlessly nudged Sessegnon off the ball in the area. It would have been a soft penalty but you have seen them given.

It was a five-minute spell that could’ve easily cost Liverpool a goal. He could have indirectly cost the Reds in stoppage time too.

Alexander-Arnold steps up from right-back despite possession being far from secure
Alexander-Arnold steps up from right-back despite possession being far from secure

Having managed to limit Spurs to just a single goal despite the second-half onslaught, Liverpool’s hard work could have been undone with one of the final phases of play in the game.

Alexander-Arnold steps up as Liverpool clear the ball. Perhaps he is trying to stop the pass to Ivan Perisic. Perhaps he is looking to support Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Regardless of the reason for it, it is a gamble that he does not need to take at this stage of the game.

After Spurs regain possession, the Liverpool right-back doesn’t drop.

Alexander-Arnold is left totally out of position after Tottenham win the ball back
Alexander-Arnold is left totally out of position after Tottenham win the ball back

As the ball is played back to Perisic, Alexander-Arnold is ahead of the midfield three. He isn’t in a position to help defensively and he makes no attempt whatsoever to get back. He just watches on as everyone else looks to see out the win. Joe Gomez has to look to block the cross and this leaves Liverpool three-vs-three in the penalty area.

Konate is able to stop the ball from reaching anyone in white, though he does nearly deflect the ball past Alisson for an own goal. Afterwards, both Gomez and Jordan Henderson look at Alexander-Arnold and words are exchanged.

Southgate will likely watch that game back and feel vindicated in the stance he took during the last international break when he claimed Kieran Trippier was a better all-round full-back.

Because while Alexander-Arnold can, and has, put in defensive shifts in previous matches - he was brilliant against Ajax - he is prone to games like the one against Spurs. It didn’t cost Liverpool but that doesn’t mean a similar performance wouldn’t cost England.

However, his ability to create an attack out of nothing could be pivotal if the Three Lions are to improve on their semi-final showing at the 2018 World Cup. While Alexander-Arnold might not get many minutes in Qatar, the ones he does get could be the difference between success and failure.

The bad and ugly sides of his game might not come into it if he’s thrown onto the pitch and allowed to do the good.

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