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Can Trent Alexander-Arnold and England make it work?
How can Southgate get more out of the right back?
It wasn’t always like this.
As strange as it seems today, Gareth Southgate was an early advocate for Trent Alexander-Arnold. The right back’s big breakout season came in 2017/18, particularly the second half of the campaign, right around when Southgate was finalising exactly what he wanted from his team at the World Cup that summer. The England manager, learning from mistakes in the past, was absolutely fixed on sticking to his system and core players, so it would take a lot for anyone to break in. But nonetheless, Alexander-Arnold was the one surprise inclusion in that World Cup squad, having only briefly trained with the first team in March. It was a statement of intent from Southgate, telling us that this kid is the future of the national team.
England famously played a back three in that tournament. Kyle Walker was a centre back, which meant the 19-year-old was the second choice right wing-back behind Kieran Trippier. He looked comfortable when coming in, but everyone understood why the more experienced Trippier would be favoured. His aim was obviously to take over as the first choice by the European Championships. Even if he avoided injury, that would not have happened.
It’s understandable why he’s fallen down the pecking order. When England play a back four, Southgate can’t afford to have the full backs really bomb on. If he wanted to do this, he’d have to rein in his midfield, and that would mean sacrificing players like Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish. Walker, while not of Alexander-Arnold’s quality, is more complementary to those players. When England play a back three, he wants wing backs who are a little more energetic at getting up and down the pitch. It does make some sense why he would like Reece James so much here, even if I think the case is less clear-cut. Trippier, meanwhile, has earned back Southgate’s trust due to improved defensive performances under Diego Simeone.
Alexander-Arnold, one sometimes suspects, needs the system to be built around him. But his performances are so good that we’re getting to a point where England arguably should do this for him.
Just ignore that he’s a right back for a minute. Players aren’t positions. Liverpool are one of the best sides in Europe, certainly going forward, and he’s by far the team’s most important playmaker. Only Bruno Fernandes* and Mohamed Salah have pulled off more shot-creating actions in the Premier League this season1. He’s played the second most progressive passes and provided the second most expected assists. In the second half of last season, he led the league in StatsBomb’s “on-ball value” model. We’re talking about a world-class playmaker here.
*Manchester United aren’t creating the highest quality chances right now, so a shot-creating action there is probably worth a bit less than one for Liverpool.
Now remember that he plays right back.
Having a playmaker like this at full back is so awkward because you need him to get up the pitch to do his damage, which leaves you exposed. When he’s merely adequate as an athlete, like Alexander-Arnold is, that’s a hard problem to solve without turning your team inside out, as Liverpool do. But we’re at a point where it’s really worth considering a way to do it, so here are a few of my suggestions for how England might better incorporate his talents. I’ve tried to stick to players Southgate is likely to use rather than my own personal picks, so don’t go and complain that your faves aren’t there. Just don’t worry about it too much, ok?
1. Just copy Liverpool
I’ve struggled to find a term for his club position. He’s sort of a roaming right back who gets into attacking positions and is largely free from defensive responsibilities when everything works properly. If England were to blatantly copy Jurgen Klopp’s system, it might look something like this:
Foden, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane would form our Liverpool-style front three, with Kane naturally dropping deep and the wingers coming inside onto their stronger feet. Luke Shaw could do a decent impression of Andy Robertson to match Alexander-Arnold on the opposite side. Mount can play that right-sided central midfield role, coming wide at times and filling in when Alexander-Arnold moves inside.
The main problem is at centre back. Liverpool rely heavily on recovery pace there to make the whole system tick. We saw what happened without it last season and it wasn’t pretty. Southgate’s preferred centre backs, John Stones and Harry Maguire, are not the quickest. This is a big part of why he likes to put Walker’s recovery pace alongside them.
I don’t think there’s a perfect solution to this. Declan Rice could drop in between the centre backs to form a three at times when the full backs push on. That would constrict the space each defender has to cover, if not adding an abundance of speed to the backline. England probably would need to defend deeper than Liverpool to make this work just due to the lack of pace.
2. Play him at wing back
Southgate likes going to three at the back. Alexander-Arnold doesn’t want to do lots of defending. Just play him at wing back! Simple, right?
The main issue with this is actually something I think England need to change anyway. When Southgate plays with a back three, the wing backs tend to drop all the way back to become genuine defenders without the ball. It’s usually a back five without the ball. This was a problem in the Euro 2020 final against Italy, as England sat too deep and let the Italians pen them in. In the win over Germany, England managed this much better, defending higher up the pitch without the ball. The role of the wing backs is important here, and getting them closer to the midfielders could help Alexander-Arnold.
Southgate did make this tactical tweak against Albania. England defended higher up the pitch, with the wing backs staying closer to the midfielders. But he favoured James over Alexander-Arnold. James was arguably England’s best performer on the night, further cementing his position as a Southgate favourite. James does offer more energy in the role and puts a very good ball in, if not quite a sensational one the way Alexander-Arnold can. For the Liverpool player to break into this role, he needs to work on holding his position in a wide area rather than coming inside to get involved in play. In his cameo late on against Albania, we saw the issue as he looked to come short instead of exploiting the space by getting chalk on his boots.
3. Play him in midfield
This has been mooted a lot, but I need to be clear about something: I’m not talking about playing him as a defensive midfielder. His quality getting into the final third is far too good for that, and it would be a complete waste of his skillset. No, for Alexander-Arnold to thrive in a midfield role, it needs to be more advanced. Think Kevin De Bruyne.
The idea here is pretty similar to the Liverpool-style 4-3-3, but with important adjustments. We still have a narrow front three. But this time, Alexander-Arnold drifts wide in possession, while right back Walker tucks in. On the opposite flank, Shaw pushes up, so England effectively move into a back three at times with Alexander-Arnold and Shaw as the wide men. This would let Alexander-Arnold attack in the kinds of spaces he likes to exploit for Liverpool, while Southgate still gets the protection from Walker.
The main problem here is everyone else. If Mount plays, he has to take on a much more conservative central midfield role. I’m not suggesting he can’t do it, but you don’t really want him doing that. Grealish can’t really play in this system. Suddenly you’re looking at an attack heavily reliant on Alexander-Arnold for creativity, and that doesn’t seem like something Southgate is likely to do.
Alexander-Arnold really does feel like an awkward fit at this point. It’s an easy stick to beat Southgate with, but it’s also been obvious simply watching the games that he hasn’t been close to his Liverpool standards in an England shirt. Still, this can’t just be ignored and written off. Alexander-Arnold has to start performing in an England shirt, and Southgate has to find a way to do that. The Three Lions are just leaving too much value on the table otherwise.
“Square pegs in round holes” has been an obsessive complaint with England as long as I can remember. Everyone could see the pitfalls of Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard getting tasked with totally different roles compared to club level. Alexander-Arnold takes this issue to another level. His talents are so unique that you can’t just pull out a round hole for his round peg. To stretch the metaphor way too far, he’s like a weird star-shaped peg that only fits into the same manufacturer’s star-shaped mould. But what a peg.
I do believe the solutions are out there. I think Alexander-Arnold can perform at his Liverpool standards for England. It’s just a matter of ingenuity and a will to make it happen.
And if it does happen, England could really have something.