He struggles defensively but boy is he dangerous going forward. No prizes for originality here, but Jurgen Klopp’s latest experiment has added a new dimension to the seemingly perpetual Trent Alexander-Arnold debate.
Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal showcased everything we already knew about Alexander-Arnold. He was unable to catch Gabriel Martinelli for Arsenal’s first, and was caught flat-footed for their second, prompting the copy-and-paste pundit reaction.
“It’s as if he’s never played the position before,” Roy Keane said on Sky Sports. “He seems surprised every time someone has good movement. He’s not learnt at all over the last few years in terms of his defensive play. He’s not improved at all defensively.”
Gary Neville, meanwhile, added: “He doesn’t need to become the best defender in the world. He just cannot be a liability. You’re just asking for a little bit of competence and attention to your work.”
In stark contrast to this defensive deficiency, Alexander-Arnold was then at the heart of both the momentum shift and Liverpool’s equalising goal, scuffling with Granit Xhaka to gee up the Anfield crowd late in the first half before nutmegging a distraught Oleksandr Zinchenko and crossing in for Roberto Firmino late in the second.
Boy is he dangerous going forward. So much so that Klopp opted to deploy Alexander-Arnold as a No 6 alongside Fabinho when Liverpool were in attack, a tactical tweak that could be here to stay.
“It’s not the first time,” Klopp acknowledged afterwards. “We did that before, maybe it was not that obvious, but we did that before that we put Trent inside.
“He needs to get used to it obviously, I would say it’s a big step to do that in a game against Arsenal. It opened up different opportunities for us… So I thought he did well. It was not the first time but not for a while and that is why I am fine with how he executed it.”
Alexander-Arnold in midfield has long been mooted as the solution to his shortcomings. Gareth Southgate tested the waters on the international stage against Andorra back in 2021, but that lasted all of 45 minutes before he reverted to right-back.
And though still technically at right-back in defence against Arsenal, Liverpool’s next match at Leeds on Monday will tell us whether this experiment in attack continues, as Klopp seeks a formula to reignite their hopes of silverware next season.
With nine league matches remaining, a far cry from their packed quadruple-chasing schedule 12 months ago, Klopp has breathing space without the weight of expectation, and with it an opportunity to try new things as we discover just how much they want a place in the Europa League or Europa Conference League.
Liverpool’s remaining fixtures
- 17 April: Leeds (a)
- 22 April: Nottingham Forest (h)
- 26 April: West Ham (a)
- 30 April: Tottenham (h)
- 3 May: Fulham (h)
- 6 May: Brentford (h)
- 15 May: Leicester (a)
- 20 May: Aston Villa (h)
- 28 May: Southampton (a)
A bolder experiment for Klopp could therefore be three at the back. Why not? An aging central midfield could drop from three positions to two, receive a boost by the presence of Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson on either side, and also relinquish the duo ever so slightly of their defensive responsibilities.
It would require mobile centre-backs, at least three fit at any time – no given for Liverpool in recent years – and arguably needs a left-footer too, with Virgil van Dijk, Ibrahima Konate, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip all right-footed.
Nevertheless, with Konate impressing against Arsenal, the three-at-the-back puzzle is two thirds of the way there, as though Van Dijk is enduring a difficult campaign, he remains an undroppable presence that could even benefit from a third central defender.
With both Gomez and Matip on the bench for Sunday’s draw, the scope is there for Klopp to roll the dice, but it would mean forgoing a formation he has trusted for years.
Liverpool have started with four at the back in every game this season, so too the previous campaign, and the one before that, and the one before that… and you get the point.
In fact, not since December 2018 has Klopp started with a three-at-the-back formation, a 3-4-2-1 at Brighton with Dejan Lovren playing with Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum in defence (yes, really), while Robertson and Alexander-Arnold flanked James Milner and Jordan Henderson in midfield.
They won 5-1.
Five years later, then, maybe it’s time for another alteration.