When a 17-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold made his competitive debut for home-town club Liverpool in October 2016, few people would have expected the right-back to be starting in consecutive Champions League finals before his 21st birthday.
The 20-year-old’s development from a central midfielder in Liverpool’s youth academy to becoming one of the best right-backs in world football has been remarkable. As one of Liverpool’s very own, Alexander-Arnold has become a cult hero on the Kop. A mural of his number 66 shirt dons the side of an Anfield Road house, and nothing could be more indicative of how much Liverpool fans value their latest Scouse hero.
Brief introduction – Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool
In order to fully appreciate Alexander-Arnold’s qualities, we need to understand Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
Whilst Liverpool’s formation will go down as 4-3-3 on the team sheet, the versatility of personnel means that the system is far more fluid. As with Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, his system at Liverpool consists of gegenpressing: a system in which his team looks to dispossess the opposition high up the pitch. Although the tempo of the press is often dictated by forward players such as Roberto Firmino, the entire team must follow suit in order for the system to work.
Given the style of Liverpool’s pressing system, Liverpool’s full-backs occupy positions in the middle and attacking thirds more so than full-backs of other teams. As a result, Alexander-Arnold is expected to play a key role in retaining possession and providing creative attacking outlets. In the upcoming analysis, we’ll look at specific attributes that make the 20-year-old a perfect fit for Liverpool’s system.
Creative output in attack
With Liverpool having averaged 57.82% possession in the last calendar year, Alexander-Arnold spends a substantial amount of time contributing to attacking situations. This is most prominently in tandem with Jordan Henderson (RCM) and Mohamed Salah (RW). The connection with players around him is a key component of the right-back’s attacking contribution. In order to fully contribute to attacks, he needs options when in possession as well as room to manoeuvre on the right flank.
This is shown in the picture below where Alexander-Arnold has a choice of four passes. With Sadio Mané making a horizontal run across the last line of defence and Mohamed Salah occupying a space in between Nacho Monreal and David Luiz, the right-back has sufficient attacking passes available. Salah’s presence between the two Arsenal defenders allows him additional space down the right flank.
Added attacking threat from Roberto Firmino who takes up an intelligent attacking position adds a further option for Alexander-Arnold. Meanwhile, the stable position of Jordan Henderson gives the right-back license to attack. The full-back’s multiple options in possession ultimately allows him to find space closer to Arsenal’s goal.
These multiple attacking options above highlight the creative threat in Liverpool’s attack. However, such a threat would only prove decisive if the player in possession finds the right pass. Despite not finding the right pass on this occasion, Alexander-Arnold’s strength in his passing ability will be discussed later – to highlight how his threat on the ball should be a key concern for opposition managers.
Above all else, the numerous options whilst in possession indicate that the full-back has a vast creative influence within Liverpool’s attacking system. This is illustrated by the fact that Alexander-Arnold averaged 9.93 attacking third passes last season.
With the previous slide showcasing the right-back’s multiple options in possession, this slide highlights the product of the options he had in the previous phase of play. Liverpool’s system allows Alexander-Arnold to reap the rewards, with the full-back being able to enter into the Arsenal penalty area at pace. The defender’s acceleration to take-on Monreal proves a real strength in his game. With such pace, Alexander-Arnold is able to contribute in the attacking third frequently. This has been pivotal to his creative output under Klopp with an outstanding 16 assists last season.
To further showcase the attacking strengths of the England international, his pace down the right flank is a useful tool in partnership with Mohamed Salah. Below, we see that he is able to use his pace in order to provide rudimentary full-back duties of overlapping.
However, Alexander-Arnold’s pace is useful elsewhere, too. As it is illustrated throughout this tactical analysis, the full-back has several strengths to offer his side. Pace is a key characteristic of his creative output in the attack. In addition to overlapping, this is a useful trait in the defender’s capability to take up effective attacking positions.
In many respects, the 20-year-old has many qualities not often associated with a right-back – as we will go on to discuss. His attacking mentality, combined with physical attributes that allow him to carry them out, make him a strong attacking force.
Alexander-Arnold’s passing abilities are a key reason why he is able to influence attacking patterns of play. This, combined with his vision for a smart pass, makes him an important part of Liverpool’s attacking play on the right flank.
With an average of 51 passes per game so far this season, his attacking involvement relies primarily on his passing ability. This is often showcased through three tactics. Firstly, precise passes into the area. Second, smart passes into attacking positions. And, third, long-range passes to switch the play. Such variety in his passing attributes makes Alexander-Arnold a constant threat to the opposition.
Below, we see two examples of his passing ability producing equally valuable outcomes. The first shows his ability to pick out a pass in attacking positions to find Mané. The right-back’s pass enters the red area (circled) to fall perfectly for the striker who doesn’t need to break his stride before scoring. Being able to see the pass is one thing, but the execution from the England international is very impressive.
Alexander-Arnold further showcases his passing ability with passes in the first phase of attacking play. As we see below, Firmino drops into space between the midfield and defensive line to pick up the ball. In being able to see the pass and execute it with conviction, the right-back is able to penetrate defensive lines. Additionally, Alexander-Arnold is able to execute such precise passes, therefore he can help unlock one of world football’s most intelligent forwards in Firmino.
Overall, Alexander-Arnold’s passing ability facilitates involvement in attacking situations. Whether he is starting attacking phases from within his own half, or finishing them off with precise assists, passing is a key component of his game.
With 16 assists last season, the set-piece specialities of Alexander-Arnold make him valuable to Liverpool’s attack. In the last two seasons, he has expertly taken free-kicks versus Watford in the Premier League and – his first for the Reds – away to Hoffenheim in the Champions League in 2017.
His ability to find the back of the net will be something he looks to improve on – with only one league goal last season – but there is certainly reason to believe the full-back will continue to be a goal-scoring threat from free-kicks.
As shown below, Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick taking ability is useful in creating goal-scoring chances for his team-mates. Again, it is his ability to deliver the ball into a precise area that is most impressive. With the right trajectory, this delivery versus Southampton provides Mané with a perfect chance to score.
In being able to provide added attacking threat from set-pieces, Alexander-Arnold is one of the most well-rounded attacking full-backs in the Premier League. For opposition teams, it is hard to fully pinpoint an area in which they can thwart his attacking abilities. This shows that the full-back is a constant attacking threat.
So far we have only discussed the attacking abilities of Alexander-Arnold. Whilst that indicates his worth in an attacking sense, he is nonetheless a right-back. So first and foremost, he must be good at defending. This is probably the weakest element of his game at the moment. But, we must remember that developing a strong defensive base takes time – and he’s still only 20 years old.
In defensive duels, he had a fairly average success rate at 57.6% over the course of last season – although 9% lower than Manchester City’s Kyle Walker. Therefore, it would be fair to say that his defensive abilities strengths are higher up the pitch.
For instance, he is a key part of Liverpool’s gegenpressing system with quick defensive recovery. Above, we see the right-back regain possession with sound defensive awareness. The subsequent tackle on Jordi Alba highlights Alexander-Arnold’s strength in recovering possession. This part of his game is one of the most important in a system that requires high intensity for 90 minutes. Without such intensity and quick recovery, the right-back would be exposed defensively.
Moreover, as a player who is important to Liverpool’s attacking creativity, he is bound to be out of defensive position at times. Consequently, this defensive recovery shows that he is able to regain possession in vulnerable positions. This makes him an ideal attacking full-back who can contribute in an attacking sense in addition to recovering well defensively.
Alexander-Arnold has all the attributes needed in a modern-day full-back – and more. Most specifically to Klopp’s gegenpressing system, the England international is able to contribute with attacking output through several mediums.
Whether it is through well-executed set-piece delivery, precise passing or defensive recovery, the full-back is on his way to becoming a Liverpool legend for many years.
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