It was only a month ago that Trent Alexander-Arnold’s teenage years concluded and it’s been little over two years since the Liverpool right-back made his first team debut in an EFL Cup victory over Tottenham. The rise of the 20-year-old over the past 24 months has been meteoric, to put it mildly. The player tipped for big things by Steven Gerrard in the former Reds captain’s 2015 autobiography may only have been intended as a short-term fix following injury to Nathaniel Clyne, but he has since rendered the ex-Southampton man a bit-part player at Anfield. In just two years, Alexander-Arnold has evolved exponentially as a footballer. During Liverpool’s journey to the Champions League final last season, he had several elite attackers in his proverbial pocket despite his tender years. As with any young player making their way in the game at its highest level, though, there are still moments of naivety from which he will need to learn the hard way. Our tactical analysis looks at Alexander-Arnold’s performance in the Reds’ 1-1 draw with Arsenal last Saturday, a match which showcased the youngster’s strengths and weaknesses.
From literally the first minute, Arsenal channelled a lot of their play to the left flank, clearly confident that the in-form Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could give Alexander-Arnold a torrid time. Only two minutes had elapsed when the Gabon attacker snuck in behind the Liverpool right-back and took possession in a dangerous area (see image), with the assistant referee’s offside flag preventing a serious chance from developing. Forty seconds later, it was the turn of Sead Kolasinac to give Alexander-Arnold the slip, ghosting past him before his low cross was gathered by Alisson. Already there was a clear sense that the England international was being targeted by Arsenal manager Unai Emery as a potential weak link.
In the 13th minute, Granit Xhaka threaded the ball into a promising position (see image), with Joe Gomez (12) in the middle seeming to pick up Mesut Ozil if Alexander-Arnold (circled) on the right can handle Aubameyang. While Gomez does let Ozil drift to instead focus on Aubameyang, the Liverpool right-back misjudges the weight of the pass and the Gabon striker is left with a chance that he ends up blasting into the side netting. This was another moment that raised concerns about Alexander-Arnold’s aptitude for reading the play.
Two minutes later, Liverpool had a lucky escape when Henrikh Mkhitaryan headed wide after Alisson had rashly left his goal without getting to the ball. While ultimately the chance came to nothing, it was worth noting Alexander-Arnold’s position as the ball was crossed into Mkhitaryan (see image). For one, he had temporarily swapped flanks with Andy Robertson, possibly a measure implemented to relieve the early pressure on the young Englishman. There is a case to be argued that perhaps he could have pushed higher and played Mkhitaryan offside, but that is mitigated by him being the only outfield Liverpool player to realise where the Armenian was standing when the cross was played. Virgil van Dijk, who was superb at the Emirates Stadium, appeared to temporarily switch off in this instance, but Alexander-Arnold did have eyes for Mkhitaryan and heeded Alisson’s shout of ‘keeper’, a shout from the Brazilian which proved misguided.
Sometimes Alexander-Arnold’s reading of the game leaves room for improvement, but he played an understated yet crucial role in stopping a promising Arsenal counterattack near the 20-minute mark. As Ozil was surging up the left flank, the Liverpool right-back cut out the German’s run on the halfway line and even managed to play the ball off Ozil to win a throw for the Reds. Had Alexander-Arnold not reacted so quickly, Ozil would have had the freedom of Liverpool’s half into which to bomb forward. Had the England youngster dived in rashly, he risked a yellow card at best. It was a split-second piece of play which evaded almost every highlights reel, yet it was arguably Alexander-Arnold’s most vital contribution over the 95 minutes played at the Emirates.
One of Alexander-Arnold’s biggest strengths is his competency in getting forward along the right flank (see heat map above) and it was that willingness to play upfield, along with a shrewd eye for a pass, which created a gilt-edged chance for van Dijk midway through the first half. The Dutchman found himself in an unfamiliar position in the opposition penalty area as he took the ball under control, only to be thwarted by a fine stop from Bernd Leno. The Arsenal goalkeeper deserves plenty of praise for that save, as does Alexander-Arnold for the sumptuous delivery that he provided for van Dijk.
The English youngster is a defender first and foremost, though, and while he has shown tremendous maturity in that position over the past couple of years, he remains a work in progress. Shortly before half-time, Arsenal had possession near the corner (see image) and not a lot of room in which to operate. However, the ball still makes it way into the penalty box, with Alexander-Arnold neglecting to stop the cross from coming. Aubameyang ended up heading the ball well over from six yards, but it was definitely one that can be filed under the ‘got away it’ category from a Liverpool perspective.
Into the second half, and with Liverpool 1-0 up going into the final 15 minutes, Alexander-Arnold produced two instances of calm, calculated defensive work. The first example saw him faced with Arsenal substitute Alex Iwobi (circled in above image), who charged into the penalty area. The England right-back needed to judge the situation carefully so that he didn’t give away a foul or commit too early and leave Iwobi with an easy cross. Alexander-Arnold matched his opponent for pace and forced him to the byline, and while Iwobi still got his cross away, nobody could get on the end of it. Shortly afterwards, he showed the same composure to snuff out a potential cross from Kolasinac, forcing the Bosnian to eventually run the ball out of play.
Two minutes later, Alexandre Lacazette equalised and, in the closing stages, any winning goal looked more likely to come from Arsenal. One moment where it could easily have originated was in the 87th minute when Danny Welbeck was in possession along the left and appeared to be shackled by Alexander-Arnold. However, the Liverpool man let his England international colleague bypass him all too easily and he could count himself very lucky that nothing came from that moment of carelessness. Had Arsenal scored from that play, Alexander-Arnold would have been singled out for costly culpability in post-match analysis segments for his role in Liverpool’s first league defeat of the season.
One slightly concerning statistic arose from Saturday’s match relating to the young right-back. He lost the ball six times over the game; only Mohamed Salah coughed up possession with greater regularity. Thankfully, four of Alexander-Arnold’s six losses of possession were in Arsenal’s half (see image).
Saturday ended up being something of a mixed bag for the youngster, who is undoubtedly an excellent player for someone of just 20 years of age but still has rough edges to his game which need addressing as his career develops. Alexander-Arnold certainly has ample time to work on his shortcomings, though, and if he can take on board the lessons of matches such as the one at Arsenal, or Tuesday night’s disaster in Belgrade, he will continue to be a staple of Liverpool’s first team for the foreseeable future.