By Lewis Rooke – @LV_Rooke
Take yourself back to the pre-season 2017, and an away day just over the Mersey at Prenton Park against Tranmere Rovers. An up-and-coming young scouser sat firmly on the fringes of the first team, among a bucket full of fellow locals hoping to prove themselves and make their breakthrough for the coming season. That particular scouser was Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Trent was part of a decently talented crop coming through, but the spotlight particularly shone on an exciting and technically capable Ben Woodburn, as well as the pacey and powerful Ryan Kent. Welsh seventeen year-old Woodburn notched in the Tranmere match, with expectations for him soaring through the roof. It was a coming of age moment, but not for Woodburn, this day was to be the making of the unassuming Alexander-Arnold.
I was sat in the Johnny King stand as I saw regular right-back Nathaniel Clyne fall to the ground with an injury. Initially, I thought absolutely nothing of it. Brushed it off as if water on a ducks back. But the news broke that Clyne would be missing a large majority of the season. Terrible news, I thought, but the transfer window is still open, a replacement will be signed.
Deadline day loomed with no new right-back, and the dawning reality that we were to enter into the season, fighting both on Champions and Premier League fronts, with an 18-year-old slender boy from the academy anchoring the right-hand side of what was already a notoriously leaky defence.
I’d seen Trent play in a few cameo appearances towards the back end of the 2016/17 season, and thought he looked very raw indeed. He looked exactly like a centre midfielder (the position he played in the academy) shoehorned into an unfamiliar position, and looked defensively suspect as a result. There were occasions though, little glimpses, of his lung-busting runs forward that were learned from his time in the midfield. As defensively sound as Clyne was, this was a new phenomenon. This full-blooded, attacking, overlapping, rampaging full-back took me aback. But ask Alberto Moreno, you can’t be a successful full-back if you can’t defend, I thought.
The 2017/18 season got off to an absolute flyer for Alexander-Arnold. The West Derby boy opened Liverpool’s Champions League account with a beautifully struck free-kick against Hoffenheim the the qualifying first leg. His good performances continued into the season but again, there were the occasional defensive lapses in Trent’s game that had yet to be rectified. He had a particular tendency to be caught flat-footed as a ball was played through the gap between him and the centre back, where strikers found a lot of joy in behind. The scouser was dropped to the bench in favour of Joe Gomez, who brought more defensive solidity to the back four.
Trent’s defensive vulnerabilities became visibly apparent in one of the most fiercely contested fixtures in football history, Manchester United away. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial bamboozled the youngster throughout- with Rashford scoring the first by getting the inside run on the fullback. This was by far his toughest challenge to date, and an off-day was very forgivable especially against the pace and power he was up against at such an early age. But Trent’s next challenge would either make or break him as a Liverpool player.
Liverpool’s game against Crystal Palace in the Premier League was overshadowed by the looming Champions League quarter-final clash against Manchester City, and whilst the Reds ran out 2-1 winners at Selhurst Park, Wilfried Zaha gave Trent a really tough time with his power and direct running. It was not so much a bad performance that gave Liverpool fans concern, it was the even more fierce monster around the corner lying in wait. Leroy Sane had terrorised backline after backline throughout the season, and was twice the player of Zaha with a stronger supply line. It was the German who was lying in wait for Trent next, waiting to gobble up the young man.
I thought before the Manchester City game about the right back position. I thought about how many academy graduates have had fleeting 15 game spells where they look the absolute real deal and could sew the position down for a decade- the likes of Martin Kelly, Jon Flanagan and Andre Wisdom came and went, and I thought that one weak performance from Trent could send him down the exact same path.
Boy oh boy, was I wrong indeed.
Unbelievably and against every bookmakers odds, Liverpool go 3-0 up against Manchester City in the first thirty minutes. The onus immediately shifted from scoring to preventing City from getting an all-important away goal, with Guardiola’s juggernaut specifically targeting Liverpool’s right-hand side with Leroy Sane pulling out to the touchline to stretch Alexander-Arnold to his limits.
Wave after wave of attack filtered down the flank. Trent towered, Sane shrunk.
Alexander-Arnold halted every single attack that came down his side of the pitch, closing the German down at every opportunity, swallowing up any space for him to weave his magic. Going forward he was also a huge threat, offering us a glimpse of the complete performances he was capable of. This was a real ‘coming of age’ performance for Trent, as if Wilfried Zaha had awoken a defensive beast that was unleashed at Anfield that night.
Not only did Trent improve in a defensive sense, his attacking play somehow became even sharper- producing magnificent performances in the away leg against Manchester City, and the five-nil demolition of Roma at Anfield. But yet, his biggest test was still to come, in the form of one of the greatest players ever to set foot on the pitch.
Liverpool’s remarkable Champions League run culminated in a Kiev showdown against Real Madrid, with Trent this time up against Cristiano Ronaldo. Whilst the Reds infamously succumbed by a scoreline of 3-1 thanks to two Loris Karius howlers, Alexander-Arnold marshalled Ronaldo expertly throughout the game. This was the announcement of Trent on the world stage as a true European class player, a player who has played at the ‘elitest’ of elite levels and made it look easy.
It’s nice to take a step back sometimes, and to merely look at Trent’s journey from academy hopeful to pocketing the best of the best that football has to offer. Whilst sat in the stand at Prenton Park, who would have thought that one innocuous injury could have so much of a positive impact on Liverpool’s season, and from such an unexpected source.
Trent’s form has only soared to new heights so far this season. Liverpool’s defence has been the best it has been for a decade, with Alexander-Arnold so far this season adding Neymar to his growing list of scalps, keeping the Brazilian silent in Liverpool’s Champions League group game against PSG. Nathaniel Clyne’s occasional forays into Liverpool’s first team has been the clearest indicator of how much Trent has progressed, with the young scouser making the previously-solid Clyne look extremely pedestrian.
As we go forward onto bigger and better things under Jurgen Klopp, it’s one thing to note that Trent isn’t the Martin Kelly-esque flash-in-the-pan that we have gotten used to with so many academy graduates. This boy really is rather special, and we should savour every moment as he only improves with experience.
For years we’ve craved an academy player to fill the local boy hole left by Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, now we finally have the heir to their crown in our very own Trent Alexander-Arnold.