Gary Lineker believes Trent Alexander-Arnold is “the best passer in English football,” and because of this, the 22-year-old “should be playing in midfield”.
He’s not the only one. It is an opinion that circulates some sections of Twitter with a notable regularity.
Lineker’s was an interesting take because, in these early stages of the season, it would appear Jürgen Klopp has tweaked his right-back’s role and Liverpool’s No.66 is, in fact, already playing a semi-hybrid position as a right-back who drifts into central areas far more than he did last campaign.
There are two aspects to this change which ring very clear.
One is that Klopp feels the need to adapt his system to accommodate Harvey Elliott – Liverpool looked less different in setup in the game against Norwich, when it was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right of the midfield three.
The other is that Klopp has been inspired by Pep Guardiola’s utilisation of João Cancelo last season.
Although Cancelo received fairly minimal playing time in his first year with Manchester City, his league minutes doubled during his second. He became the total hybrid player – a right-back when his side were out of possession, who would become an extra central-midfielder when City had the ball.
The same applied when he was positioned on the left, if and when Pep favoured Kyle Walker’s defensive speed and strength on his right-flank, for example when away to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League semi-final.
Guardiola has long enjoyed this tactical approach, and many will remember David Alaba being asked to do the same when the Spaniard was in charge at Bayern Munich.
Cancelo had great success in the role – he was a key part of a City team that won the Premier League at a canter, and was named in the PFA Team of the Season. The Portuguese international was even in the discussion for the Player of the Season gong, before a late drop-off halted his bid.
Liverpool often struggled to create goals last year against teams who defend their boxes well, against the likes of Burnley and Brighton, whose tall centre-halves were perfectly capable of dealing with the Reds’ assault of crosses, which had wreaked regular havoc in the 2019/20 season.
Putting, in Lineker’s words, “the best passer in English football” into central areas more often should, in theory, enable Klopp’s side to better vary their creative sources.
The best example of this is, of course, the Sadio Mané goal against Burnley.
Virgil van Dijk’s cross-field switch into Harvey Elliott was flicked inside to the onrushing Alexander-Arnold, whose sublime first-time ball around the corner found Mané who blasted unerringly beyond the helpless Nick Pope.
That was exactly how Klopp wants this system to function, and the key was Harvey Elliott.Embed from Getty Images
As a ‘wide playmaker’ (to use a Football Manager term) Elliott’s creative output enables Trent’s move inside to not kill the Liverpool passing chains down the right-wing.
Elliott has the technical ability and creative know-how to trap van Dijk’s switch of play and turn it inside in almost an instant.
The one key issue, though, as we saw in the second half of the Chelsea game, is that Elliott is left-footed.
Looking at the heatmaps, showing where players most often had touches of the ball, it is concerning that Elliott and Alexander-Arnold appear to be occupying the same positions. Both functioning most often in the right-midfield channel, and neither having very many involvements nearer the byline.
Both played well, but the system does not feel quite perfect just yet, as long as Elliott naturally coming inside onto his preferred foot sees him occupy the space that Trent is supposed to be pushing into.
Neither was often enough offering the run in-behind that was needed to really stretch Thomas Tuchel’s side.
It is notable that during Cancelo’s standout performances at right-back last season, Bernardo Silva – also left-footed and not dissimilar in style to Elliott – was most often right of the midfield three. But the key difference with City’s deployment of the tactic is that one of Ferrán Torres or Raheem Sterling were nearly always positioned on the right-wing. Both are right-footers meaning that both will maintain the penetrating wide runs lost by pushing Cancelo into central areas.
It goes without saying that the left-footed Mohamed Salah is likely to start on Liverpool’s right-wing in most games. But it is no surprise that the prototype – Mané’s goal against Burnley – came as the Egyptian maintained his width more than usual, and Elliott was hugging the touchline.
Asking the league’s greatest goal-threat to completely adapt his style seems unlikely and unsuitable, but it was this width which enabled Trent to have the space centrally to create the goal.
After all, the benefit of using attacking width is that it moves around and spreads out the defensive unit, and allows your own players to find more space. The more centrally that you can find this space, the more direct a route to goal you are presented with, which is where the rationale stands of moving creator-in-chief Alexander-Arnold inside.
If Liverpool do choose to continue with this system, though, they need to focus on the partnership between Trent and Elliott to see one of the two make more movements in behind the opposing defences that maintain their width, à la Sterling ahead of Cancelo.Embed from Getty Images
The other options would be to try to bring Thiago (right-footed) into the Elliott role, and use the Spaniard as the wide-playmaker, or, perhaps more revolutionarily, to pull Mané over to the right flank and use Salah as a more central striker (as Klopp has, on occasion).
A draw against the Champions of Europe does not constitute a crisis, but it did highlight the flaws of a system which had looked so promising in the Burnley game.
And while it is rare that I agree with Gary Lineker, I do think there is a case to be made that Trent is now among the best passers in world football, and with every passing week (pardon the pun) there is yet more of an argument that the local lad is now one of Liverpool’s most valuable squad members.
He appears to have bulked up over the summer, giving his game yet another edge, and was probably the best player in the Premier League from March onward in the last campaign, driving his side back into the top four.
But to move him into central midfield is to ignore his ever-improving defensive skill set, and would require a transition period as well as a total change to Klopp’s current system. It also overlooks the importance of the full-back in the modern game, in my opinion.
Either way, it is clear that the more Trent Alexander-Arnold is involved, the better Liverpool’s chances of creating, scoring and succeeding become. This is why Jürgen Klopp appears to be toying with his role, and it will be interesting to see how long the experiment will last, and what fruits it will bear.
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