This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of FourFourTwo magazine
Hands up if you grew up wanting to be a full-back. Us neither.
A goal-hungry forward? Definitely. A chalk-on-your-boots winger, tying opposition defenders in knots? Sounds like fun. Even a centre-back who sweats blood and spinal fluid for the cause? Well, it’s part of English football’s warrior DNA. But full-back? That’s for the Sunday League clogger who turns up every week despite being severely deficient in basic co-ordination, let alone footballing ability.
At professional level, too, there has always been an element of the unfashionable to full-backs – particularly the doughty, diligent types who wouldn’t venture past the halfway line even if repeatedly urged by a cattle prod.
Jamie Carragher outlined the prevailing feeling on Monday Night Football a couple of years ago. “No one wants to be a Gary Neville,” said the former Liverpool centre-back to his Sky Sports colleague. That it touched enough of a nerve to elicit the curt reply, “Phil did”, the ex-Manchester United skipper referring to his younger brother, only proved the position’s status of ugly duckling.
Over the last 18 months, however, revolution has been afoot. Since the beginning of the 2018/19 season, no Premier League player has registered more assists than Trent Alexander-Arnold. In fact, one of the few players to be anywhere near him – Kevin De Bruyne aside – is his Liverpool partner-in-crime at full-back, Andy Robertson. But what Alexander-Arnold is doing is different.
He is a shaper of games and arguably the Reds’ most creative player, as his one-goal, two-assist display in the 4-0 shellacking of Leicester City on Boxing Day aptly demonstrated. This is the story of how Liverpool – gegenpressing their way to, in all likelihood, the widest Premier League-winning margin ever – and Trent Alexander-Arnold made the full-back cool.
“This isn’t new, you know,” Mark Lawrenson tells FourFourTwo. The former Reds stopper then traces back the lineage of attacking full-backs: Cafu, Hamburg’s legendary Manfred Kaltz in the 1970s and ’80s, back to Giacinto Facchetti for 1960s’ Inter, Brazil’s Djalma Santos and England’s own Jimmy Armfield in the 1950s.
“What Trent has done is take it to a new level,” says Lawrenson. “It’s his mobility; his passing ability; his pace. His service from wide areas is fabulous. He gets his head up to have a look, and if on the odd occasion he doesn’t have time to do that, he’ll deliver right into the corridor of uncertainty.”
In an era where footballers are adapting to the specific demands dictated by each position, the resurgence of the defensive midfielder – to the near-extinction of the all-action box-to-box midfielder – has established a backbone affording both full-backs greater licence to attack with impunity.
“Back in the day, you defended against the winger because both teams matched up with 4-4-2,” former Manchester City and Everton left-back Andy Hinchcliffe said recently. Last year, Alexander-Arnold broke Hinchcliffe’s Premier League record of 11 assists in a season for a full-back (Robertson matched it).
“In the late-80s,” Hinchcliffe added, “I had the energy and intention to overlap and get up and down the pitch, but that was your only attacking option.”
In Jurgen Klopp’s 4-3-3 system, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané play as inverted wingers and occupy half-spaces in between central areas and the flanks, allowing Alexander-Arnold and Robertson the freedom to go forward. The manager’s 4-3-3 in defence essentially becomes a 3-2-5 in attack, as defensive midfielder Fabinho drops into a back three and the full-backs provide outlets in a highly fluid, mobile front five.
“It’s a big help if you have a left-footed winger who wants to come inside, because you can then provide width on the outside of them,” Alexander-Arnold told FFT in 2018. “I’ve always thought of myself as an attacking full-back and I want to express myself by joining in attacks. Mo definitely gives me the chance to do that.”
The young defender has certainly taken advantage, contributing no fewer than 22 Premier League assists between the beginning of the 2018-19 season and the end of January 2020. The variation in his delivery is staggering, ranging from the arcing cross from deep (which is so good, it doesn’t require a 6ft 4in battering ram to attack) to delicate back-post dinks, which have already created two goals for Roberto Firmino in this campaign.
“He has developed this whipped delivery which is really difficult to defend,” enthuses Lawrenson. “When Liverpool’s centre-backs have the ball, both full-backs have their feet on the touchline, so it’s very hard for three opposition forwards against four defenders who are all very comfortable on the ball.” Timing is everything.
“He’s got that element of surprise to his attacks,” Joan Capdevila, Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning left-back, tells FFT. “He chooses the perfect moment. Not just any footballer has that innate sense.
“If you’ve got a team that’s constantly on the attack, like Liverpool, then it looks like Alexander-Arnold is, too – but he is much cleverer than that. He takes risks and loses the ball quite a lot, whether with crosses into the box or long diagonal balls, but that doesn’t matter because the disorganisation it creates causes havoc.”
Capdevila’s point about risk and reward is supported by statistics. This season, no outfield player has conceded possession more than Alexander-Arnold, and nor has anyone put in as many unsuccessful crosses, while only Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld has attempted a greater number of unsuccessful long passes. That last statistic proves particularly instructive. The vast majority of Alexander-Arnold’s uncompleted long passes are diagonals from full-back to full-back, which immediately change the point of attack.
Think back to Liverpool’s 3-1 home win against Manchester City last November, and it was the 21-year-old whose 60-yard swinging pass to Robertson started the move from which Salah headed the Reds’ second goal. If Alexander-Arnold didn’t take the risk, and beat City’s press with one pass, that goal would have been impossible.
His best performance came at Leicester over Christmas: one goal, two assists, 105 touches (more than anyone else in the game) and 60 passes, the majority of them made inside the Foxes’ half. True, Leicester’s tactics played into his hands – as a nominal left-winger, James Maddison had neither the will to retreat with the right-back nor the desire to hold his width the few times his side had the ball – but Alexander-Arnold dictated the game: a playmaker in defence.
“That game just isn’t normal for a full-back,” continues Capdevila. One reason Alexander-Arnold’s upward trajectory is so steep – he skipped the Under-23s and jumped straight from Liverpool’s U18s to the first team – is his capacity to listen and learn. Klopp calls him “one of the most relentless professionals I’ve met when it comes to focusing on getting better each and every day”, and the Scouser’s set-piece delivery is the perfect metaphor.
In early 2018, coaches saw that, despite his stellar delivery from open play, there was a technical fault with the dead ball. His run-up wasn’t consistent and repeatable. Using former rugby player Jonny Wilkinson as inspiration, he worked tirelessly to correct the chink.
“Trent practises every day, staying behind after training – and not just for a few minutes,” explains Lawrenson. “We’re talking hours, setting up drills with players and coaches.”
Now, thanks to a remodelled action, Alexander-Arnold has made the most goals from set-pieces in Europe’s top five leagues this season. However, his most famous assist came last season.
In April’s Champions League semi-final second leg, with Liverpool back level on aggregate after a 3-0 battering in Barcelona, he spotted Divock Origi all alone in the penalty area as Barça’s defenders chatted among themselves. Alexander-Arnold delivered instantly in a moment of unique improvisation.
“It comes down to making a quick decision and having the skill to execute it,” reveals Capdevila. “Something like that will happen only once, so to have the confidence to make that choice in a Champions League semi-final is the most impressive thing.”
Every angle of Origi’s winner vs Barcelona Enjoy pic.twitter.com/SHT0ZVpzKUNovember 27, 2019
For three months in 2014, though, Alexander-Arnold hated football. The youngster was about to turn 17 that October, and in the off-season, he had sat down with Liverpool academy director Alex Inglethorpe and U18s head coach Neil Critchley. They decided that his most obvious pathway into the first team was as an explosive full-back.
Alexander-Arnold, part of the club since he was six, had played in the academy as a winger, a defensive midfielder and occasionally even a centre-back. He was quick, had great delivery and a drive to improve that separated him from his peers, but Inglethorpe and Critchley knew that the teenager had to work on his temperament.
Too often in matches, Trent would lose his head. He would let his shoulders slump, kick balls away in frustration, yell at team-mates and allow his emotions to take over and dictate performance. Every day for three months, Inglethorpe and Critchley crucified him on the training pitch.
“He’s gone,” they shouted. They kept fizzing the ball over to winger Bobby Adekanye – the U18s’ most skilful attacker, who joined Lazio last summer – and he ran at Alexander-Arnold for hours each day. “Trent’s quit. Give Bobby the ball. Get at Trent, get at him.”
Alexander-Arnold would arrive every day knowing what to expect. It was, he has since admitted, “absolutely horrible – I hated it”. He thought he wasn’t good enough to cope, yet the mental resolve it gave him was vital to his development.
Inglethorpe later explained, “If he didn’t like my voice for a while, then multiply that by 60,000 Liverpool fans at a game, and another couple of million watching on TV who are going to be really honest on social media.”
It didn’t take long for tongues to start wagging – the defender’s hero, Steven Gerrard, even mentioned ‘Trent Arnold’ by name in his 2015 autobiography.
“Trent was always the first name on the coaches’ lips – ‘We’ve got this right-back and he’s going to be some player’,” says Lawrenson. “It wasn’t just ability, but the way he got his head down and worked hard, and the way he lived his life.”
“Any test, basically, he has managed to overcome. He had a bit of a wobble, but his mental strength is huge. That is worked on from an early age in the academy.”
“When you move back from midfield to full-back, you think, ‘Crikey, I’ve got so much space to play. I must have leprosy, because no one’s come anywhere near me’. Your game intelligence becomes so much higher as you know what the person in those other positions has to cope with, so you know when to make a pass or a forward run.”
Even Liverpool’s backroom staff are staggered at the progress he made in defending half-spaces on the front foot – the areas of the pitch between the widest and most central channels that opposition creators like to exploit. He reads the game superbly, something perhaps linked to his love of chess – in October 2018, Alexander-Arnold even took on world champion Magnus Carlsen and lost in eight more moves than Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates once managed.
Fitness work, meanwhile, is specific to the demands of Alexander-Arnold’s personal interpretation of a full-back. High-intensity sprint training has now become the norm.
“It’s no use just being able to run at the same pace and get around a pitch like a midfielder might have done 10 years ago – it has to be more precise,” former full-back Capdevila says of the position’s modern training demands.
“Full-backs are pure athletes, almost 1,500m runners now, and they have to be the fittest in the team. He’s the perfect player for this Liverpool side: young, quick and fundamental for the champions-elect. He has the chance to define an era with his team.”
The effect Alexander-Arnold is having on this most underrated of positions is only just beginning to be felt.
“There is always a generational time lag,” Luke Thomson, a UEFA B Licence coach in the Southern Amateur League, explains to FFT.
“Young kids watch the emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold and want to emulate him. In our team, playing at full-back isn’t viewed as something especially positive, particularly among classic wingers who could actually play quite well there. We’ve tried to discourage that this season by playing a diamond in midfield, which allows our full-backs to be the main outlet.”
“Kids who can develop those in-between techniques are now at an advantage. Having the transferrable skills is massively important for their long-term progression.”
There is a school of thought that, such is his success at right-back, Liverpool’s No.66 might revert to his original midfield berth one day. Mark Lawrenson doesn’t agree.
“They’ve engineered a way of giving him space, meaning he has so much room to move into at pace – and once he’s got half a yard, you’re never going to catch him – so why would you change?” asks Lawrenson.
“The fans sing, ‘He’s the Scouser in our team’. You can show local lads Trent and say, ‘This kid has come from nowhere and is playing every week’. He’s making this position cool. That’s the best description I’ve heard.”
The man himself agrees. Alexander-Arnold sees his future as lying exactly where it is now.
“I’m a right-back and I hope me and Robbo can help change the idea that no kids want to grow up to be a full-back,” he said at the turn of the year, referencing the yearly assists competition between Robertson and himself.
“Obviously there was the famous saying, ‘No one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville’.”
The 21-year-old knew who coined that particular phrase and delivered it with a knowing smile. Soon, though, everyone will grow up wanting to be Trent Alexander-Arnold. All you have to do is revolutionise your position and become utterly synonymous with it. Good luck with that.
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