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Champions League

The great Alexander-Arnold debate: a pressing question for Gareth Southgate | England

Nonessential shops are reopening, fans are returning to stadiums, and English football has developed an unhelpful monomania in the run-up to a major tournament, demanding long-considered plans be ripped up to satisfy some ill-considered primal urge to be excited. Everything, slowly, is returning to normal.

General grumbling that Gareth Southgate is not a gung-ho maverick willing to shoehorn every eligible attacking player into one pulsating team of impossible genius has found a specific focus and, moreover, one who is young enough that this could run and run, far beyond this summer’s Euros.

The Alexander-Arnold Debate is showing early signs that it could become a continuing saga to match much-loved classics such as the Lampard-Gerrard Question and England’s Long-Running Left‑Sided Problem.

It doesn’t matter that Jürgen Klopp’s tone when pointing out the obvious – that England have a lot of very good right-backs – has already taken on a tone of baffled weariness. This is a debate that has seized the popular imagination; the pubs couldn’t have reopened at a better time to fan the conversation. Everything Trent Alexander-Arnold now does is inevitably filtered through the lens of whether he should play for England.

Headed a through ball straight into the path of Marco Asensio? Southgate was right to leave him out; vindication for the England manager for leaving him out of his last squad. Scored a last-minute winner against Aston Villa? What is Southgate thinking? Why does he hate goals and talent?

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Trent Alexander-Arnold scores Liverpool’s winner against Aston Villa
Trent Alexander-Arnold (left) scores Liverpool’s winner against Aston Villa. The question for England is not about his individual quality but how he fits within the team. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Pool/EPA

Solutions to the debate are many and varied. Alexander-Arnold should move into midfield. He should bend his knees more. He should respond to goals by tweeting passive-aggressive references to 20-year-old Russell Crowe films (is Maximus really the future he envisions for himself, being fatally wounded by his arch-enemy, the brother of the woman he loves, before being sent out to play in a vital match?). Some of the advice may even be useful, but the debate itself isn’t really about Alexander-Arnold at all.

Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s great revelation was that a football team should be thought of not as 11 discrete units but as one system of 11 interdependent parts. Nothing is absolute; everything is in contingent. Of course players are individuals. They have their own characteristics, their own emotions, their own ups and downs of fitness and form. And those change the dynamics of the system which in turn acts back upon them.

This continuous interaction of individual and structure is complex and delicate. It’s why so many transfers don’t work out: no matter how good a player or how good the team he is joining, even slight tweaks to the mechanism can have profound consequences that are difficult to predict. This is a particular problem in international football, where the structures tend to be looser and less honed given the lack of time players spend together.

The debate about selection for a national squad often feels the wrong way round. The focus is too often on who is left out, with fans of a particular club or advocates for a particular player outlining his qualities and insisting how much he deserves his place, as though international caps were some kind of merit award, rather than asking how best a team may be formed and maintained.

Which brings us back to Alexander-Arnold. He is a brilliant attacking full-back. He has been a huge part of Liverpool’s recent success, registering 13 assists in the Premier League last season and 12 the season before. His advances down the right have allowed Mohamed Salah to drift infield, facilitating the interplay of the front three and contributing to the press through midfield. There probably are technical improvements he can make to his game – he is still only 22 – but to ask him to be more defensive seems slightly beside the point. He is valued for his attacking qualities, for his energy and pace and, most of all, for his crossing ability.

The early part of this season was difficult for him. His form did suffer. But more recently he has looked sharper, as though he has been returning to form.

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How then, to explain what happened in Madrid? It is reasonable to be concerned about how readily Ferland Mendy was able to go past him, but that was not what led to the first two goals, both of which stemmed from passes from deep from Toni Kroos – and that comes down, most of all, to a failure of structure.

Both passes were aimed into the channel between Alexander-Arnold and Nat Phillips, the right-sided central defender. Perhaps there was an issue of understanding and positioning there: Phillips and Ozan Kabak was, after all, the 18th different centre-back pairing Liverpool had fielded this season; in such circumstances, uncertainty is all but inevitable.

Trent Alexander-Arnold (right) is booked during Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat at Real Madrid in their Champions League quarter-final first leg.
Trent Alexander-Arnold (right) is booked during Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat at Real Madrid in their Champions League quarter-final first leg. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/PA

But the bigger issue is that the pass was played at all. Everybody knows Alexander-Arnold attacks. Everybody knows that his starting position is high on the right. Almost since he was first selected, opponents have tried to hit long passes into the space behind him.

The reason it has only recently become a problem is that Liverpool’s pressing this season, undermined by injuries, loss of form and confidence, and the compressed calendar, is at nothing like the level it was. The high line demands a hard press: if there is no pressure on the ball, it’s relatively straightforward, certainly for players of Kroos’s ability, to measure passes in behind the defence. Or to put it another way, an aspect of Alexander-Arnold’s game that was a strength has been transformed into a weakness by structural failings elsewhere in the side. When Liverpool pressed better in the second leg, the issue was far less significant.

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Southgate, with the luxury of four high-class right-backs to choose from, and thinking of the team he has rather than a fantasy a columnist may be able to conjure, has to ask whether his England – or any national side – can press with the ferocity and organisation necessary to allow Alexander-Arnold to play his natural game. If the answer, as it must surely be, is no, then for reasons that have little to do with Alexander-Arnold’s intrinsic qualities, a more conservative option may make sense.

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