For all Trent Alexander-Arnold’s attacking output at Anfield over the last two seasons, doubts still remain amongst some sections of Liverpool fans and the wider footballing community over his defensive abilities. It’s a label that he is starting to carry with him and comparisons with compatriot Aaron Wan-Bissaka adds fuel to the fire that Alexander-Arnold can’t defend very well.
What we do know is that Alexander-Arnold’s attacking numbers have been unrivalled. His 12 Premier League assists this season matches his output in the previous season, equalling his own record for assists from a defender. Should we get any more football in this campaign you would expect him to beat his own record before the final ball of the season is kicked.
He’s also part of a Liverpool back-four which has conceded the least goals in this campaign on their way to a 25-point gap at the top of the league. They have conceded 21 goals so far this season at 0.77 per game, while last season’s record was even more impressive, conceding just 22 goals across 38 games at 0.57 per game.
Is he at fault?
We watched every goal Liverpool have conceded this season to find out where we think Alexander-Arnold has been ‘at fault’ for goals Liverpool have conceded this season
During the analysis, we found six goals where we think he could have done better. So that’s just six out of 34 goals conceded across the Premier League and Champions League during the 2019/20 season where you could argue he could have done better to prevent a goal.
So here we go, let’s take a look at the goals in question.
He could tuck around a little better here and anticipate the run of Teemu Pukki. However, Joe Gomez has been caught ball watching and also lost the run of Norwich’s frontman. Jordan Henderson doesn’t quite screen the pass, but we should also give Pukki some credit, it’s good positioning and a good run.
Verdict: Alexander-Arnold could do better but it’s not his fault. His positioning is pretty good here, he could maybe be a little closer to Pukki, or anticipate he has to make that diagonal run a little quicker, but Henderson has to do better to screen the through-ball and Gomez has let Pukki run off his left shoulder.
In the first image, we see he’s in a pretty good position, narrow and compact with his back-four. You may argue he is slightly too narrow. In the second image, he’s in a good position again, showing the Newcastle player down the line and away from goal.
Then in the third image, a good piece of skill gets the attacker half a yard of space and in the fourth, the ball is flying into the back of the net for a top-class finish.
Verdict: It’s tough on him, but at fault? Yes. He loses out in the one-verses-one and ultimately Newcastle score from it. However, the defending itself isn’t too bad. He has a good initial position in line with the rest of his back four, he is tight enough, yet not too tight that the Newcastle player can push it down the line and beat him easily but it’s a top-quality piece of skill and finishing. Matip could anticipate the cut inside a little better and get closer to block the shot, but he also has Joelinton to think about just inside him.
The whole back four has been carved open a little bit in this example, after a smart pass from now Liverpool man Takumi Minamino. The staggered line of Virgil van Dijk, Gomez and Alexander-Arnold seen across the box here from the Liverpool defenders is ideal for a centre-forward to exploit.
Verdict: At fault, yes – not as harsh this one. He could be helped out by teammates but he can see the danger and has to try and get goal-side a little quicker. Gomez can get deeper to his own goal to block the ball coming across (red arrow) and Alexander-Arnold could definitely be tucked in closer to Gomez and goalside (curved red arrow) to Erling Haaland who taps in.
This feeds nicely into the theory that we hear often in pubs and on local pitches, that you must do whatever you can to ‘stop the cross’. It is something that you hear thrown at Alexander-Arnold too, that too often he doesn’t get close enough to ‘stop the cross’.
Here we have another tight, compact back-four which is good. The ball is pushed out quickly to Angelino who crosses first time before he can get close enough. Bernardo Silva scores at the back post. There probably is not much you can do.
Verdict: Not at fault. I think you’d rather have a tight and compact unit, especially inside your own box. If that means you leave a little space for a cross, then so be it. You’d then back yourself to deal with the cross as a team.
This time against rivals Everton, he does get closer but doesn’t stop the cross again. More to come on that issue later.
But Dejan Lovren is ball-watching and has lost Richarlison, who gets between Lovren and Virgil van Dijk to head in. Both of the centre-backs could do better to pick up the run of Richarlison and position better to head away the initial cross.
Verdict: It’s hard to blame Alexander-Arnold for this one. He has got tighter than he did against City to make a cross harder, but both centre-backs are more culpable here.
This time a cross comes in from the Wolves right-hand side and Alexander-Arnold is stuck between Raul Jimenez in the middle and the player level with the penalty spot. Does he stick with the man near the penalty spot or try and get goal-side of Jimenez?
Verdict: This is a real 50/50 as to whether he is at fault. You may want to see him defending the player closest to the goal first, and then worry about what’s behind after, but ‘his man’ isn’t the one who scores. He’s done well to get back, but then he is caught between the two Wolves men and doesn’t really make a decisive defensive action.
Summary: Of the six goals, we’re going to say while he could probably do better for all six – which is why they were picked for this analysis anyway, but we think he is at fault for two, not at fault for three and a split decision on one.
Stop the cross!
So to the point of ‘not stopping the cross’ which is something you hear a lot when watching football. It’s my belief that most teams with pretty good centre-backs would rather defend a cross than their full-back get beat one-versus-one.
If your full-back gets beat by his man, the opposition player has a clear sight of goal. They have the ability to get into a strong goal-scoring position once they’ve beaten the player. Whereas with a cross, so much has to be right to lead directly to a goal. The percentages are favourable in defending a cross in comparison with a player having a shot from ten yards.
Obviously, you don’t want to let them have free reign to put a cross in without any pressure, but the notion that full-backs have to get super tight to stop a cross might be at odds with what top-level managers are asking their full-backs to do. In priority order, you could expect a manager would rather expect a full-back didn’t get beat by his man than stopped a cross.
Liverpool top the Premier League table in terms of total pressures over the season in the final third but are 17th from 20 in terms of total pressures combined with 1424 final third pressures (61.9 per game). So while total pressures will be impacted because they often dominate possession, you can see how much emphasis is on applying pressure in the attacking third.
Naturally, you’d expect Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino to be up there with the most pressures in the attacking third, and they are.
But given we’re talking about Alexander-Arnold, what about him? Also, we are going to be looking more generally about the role of the full-backs and Liverpool’s press, so we will also take a look at his mate and full-back partner Andy Robertson.
Using data which was filtered to include defenders who have played 15 or more 90 minutes this season, it’s been interesting to pull out some of the data in relation to Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
Alexander-Arnold has the third-highest pressures per 90 (22%) among the data set of 73 players, while Robertson has the highest (28%). If we look at the rest of their breakdown by third, Alexander-Arnold has 31% of his pressures in the middle third (44/73) and 47% of his pressures in his defensive third (59/73). Meanwhile, Robertson has 37% of his pressures in the middle third (55/73) and 35% of his pressures in his defensive third (73/73). Meaning he has the highest attacking third pressures and the lowest defensive third pressures.
This is important because it feeds into the tactics and the job they are being asked to do in that system as full-backs. While they obviously still do most of their defensive work outside of the attacking third, they are two of the highest defenders for attacking 3rd pressures per90 in the Premier League.
They are both being asked to counter-press and try to win the ball back as high up as possible, or force the opposition to go long quickly, in which Liverpool can regain possession. As evidence of this van Dijk has the highest number of ball recoveries for defenders this season.
Meanwhile, Robertson makes the most tackles per90 in the attacking 3rd for any defender and the least of any defender in his own defensive third. Alexander-Arnold is 19th of 73 defenders for attacking third tackles per90 and 41st from 73 in his defensive third.
So it’s fair to say that the statistics back up what we’ve seen with our eyes on the pitch. Liverpool’s full-backs are expected to do more than their Premier League counterparts in terms of pressuring the opposition in their attacking third and making more tackles higher up the pitch.
When people say the full-backs are out of position, which can quite often happen, and sometimes they’re correct, but there is a very valid reason why they are ‘out of position’ in the traditional sense. They are playing the role of a modern full-back in a possession dominant team which means what we expect of full-backs defensively is changing. We also need to consider the action prior to them being ‘out of position’ too. If they have just put a cross in from the byline can we expect them to be back on the half-way line within a few seconds?
Getting beat in one-versus-one duels
Another criticism of Alexander-Arnold is that he gets beaten in one-versus-one battles too often. This is true, he’s 57/73 in terms of the percentage of times he is dribbled past per90. He gets dribbled past 64% of the time when he attempts a tackle. Robertson is 50% and for reference, Wan-Bissaka is 40% (the best for full-backs in this data).
The next question is; where are these dribbled past stats occurring? The hunch was that they’d be in the middle or attacking thirds of the pitch, when he is high up, trying to win the ball back as our previous data suggest, but it appears the data (albeit a small sample size) shows more of his one-versus-one battles take place in the right-back corner area.
That backs up the assumption that he loses a lot of these scenarios and can be much better in that area. The data though, doesn’t show pressures, which we know from the previous data, he does do a lot of in the attacking third, so it’s a fine balance between the two. There is a trade-off in place here.
Can Alexander-Arnold be better defensively? Especially in one-versus-one scenarios? For sure. Another area for improvement, which is highlighted in the goals we picked out above, is where the man gets between the right-back and right-sided centre-back. Communication between those players could be improved, or maybe this just isn’t Alexander-Arnold’s responsibility.
We also have to put this in the context of being part of a back-four that’s conceded the least goals in the Premier League for two seasons running, an incredible attacking output (unrivalled for full-backs) and a role that isn’t of a traditional full-back. So to say he isn’t a good defender, can be a little harsh. But at 21 years old, he is only going to get better at this side of his game.