It is of no doubt that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool are among the best teams in the world at the moment. In the four-and-a-half years he has been at Anfield, he has bought 33 players for £401million. Having recouped £327m, their net spend has been just £74m since October 2015. Such has been his shrewdness in the transfer market to spend wisely and assemble a team capable of outclassing their opponents. But despite their excellence in the transfer market, Liverpool has seemingly uncovered a diamond down their right flank from their academy.
A player raised on Merseyside, with passion for the club running through his veins, now ready to dominate world football for years to come.
“Corner taken quickly, Origiiiiiii!!”
No football fan-Liverpool, Barcelona, or any other- would ever forget this piece of magic that night at Anfield. While the commentary and the scorecard both yell Divock Origi, every bit of praise was heaped onto the local boy who had pushed his boyhood club to do the seemingly impossible. Nobody in the world, not even his teammates and definitely not the Barcelona defence saw that coming.
But he did.
With Trent Alexander-Arnold about to walk away from the corner to allow teammate Xherdan Shaqiri to take it and provide an in-swinging cross, he saw a chance where nobody else did. A quick glance to see where his striker was and he dashed back to play the ball into him, unmarked, Origi received the pass and the rest is history. Such is the magic of this boy that even one of football’s greatest, Lionel Messi, looked a sorry figure below the famous scoreboard at Anfield that read Liverpool 4, Barcelona 0.
But this is just one moment from the 21-year-old’s already stellar footballing career and following this we will dive into a tactical analysis of his playing style.
The right-back’s meteoric rise can be attributed to his attacking instinct which has seemingly never left him. Where most full-backs are focused on supporting wingers and following the opposition wingers, Alexander-Arnold has plied his trade much higher up the pitch.
Alexander-Arnold’s heat map can be seen to resemble that of a winger’s more than a full-back, getting high up the pitch to supply crosses and key passes to the attackers. His ability to trouble the opposition full-backs and defence has allowed Liverpool’s talismanic forward, Mo Salah to penetrate the opposition defence easier. Salah is able to slide into the pockets of space created due to the extra threat of Alexander-Arnold’s attack and he is also able to move more central to receive passes in a better position in front of goal.
Crossing and Progressive Passing
The full-back’s ability for crossing has also seen him fit into this high role. With attackers more willing to cut in towards the penalty area in the current era, defenders – especially full-backs – have been tasked with delivering crosses to their teammates. Alexander-Arnold has taken on this task and is leading the charts in terms of crosses so far in the 2019/20 season. In a list that consists of a mix of wingers and full-backs, the 21-year-old tops them with a staggering tally of 308 crosses, 64 more Kevin De Bruyne in second place.
The full-back averages about 10.6 crosses per game, where most European teams themselves average about 11 to 12. The freedom to roam higher up the pitch and to overlap the wingers allows him to get into excellent crossing positions. Early crosses are also a big part of his game as he can spot an attackers’ run and react quickly with a ball over the top.
Another attribute is his intent to move forward. Where many defenders are comfortable playing the ball back to their goalkeepers or sideways, Alexander-Arnold seeks to carry the ball higher and make forward passes. Much like a rugby player, he is keen to gain distance up the field with his passing and looks to link up with the midfield or attack directly.
While goalkeepers usually dominate the area of progressive passes due to their natural position behind the team and their need to constantly distribute possession of the ball higher up the pitch, Alexander-Arnold features second in the list of progressive passing distance, slotting in between goalkeepers with excellent distribution and a few centre-backs as well.
This keenness to move the ball higher up the field sees the right-back play diagonal passes to the attackers and also to his fellow full-back down the other flank. His accuracy and ability to play these diagonal passes help to spread the defence of the opposition, allowing the attackers to see a lot more space to run into and receive the ball. Such defence-splitting passes enable the team to quickly transition from defence to attack and have the opposition scrambling back to defend.
Above is a prime example of how effective Alexander-Arnold’s diagonal passing is. In the Merseyside derby that saw Liverpool beat their rivals Everton 5-2, the full-back’s diagonal pass was crucial in creating Liverpool’s third goal, scored by Xherdan Shaqiri. With the team looking to counter-attack, one quick look up and he played a stunning diagonal pass into the path of Mané further up the field. The accurate ball allowed Mané to take a few touches and dribble before setting up Xherdan Shaqiri for the goal.
Such pinpoint passing over long distances has been a feature of the young full-back’s game and it is no wonder that he creates so many shot chances and goal chances. Being able to find the right player and pick him out with a near-perfect pass is easier said than done and is not expected from a full-back on such a consistent basis. It is this consistency which has seen Alexander-Arnold once again place high up the charts for most shot chances (SCA) and most goal chances created (GCA).
Once again we see the 21-year-old ranking highly in a list dominated by attackers and midfielders. It is also interesting to note that compared to the famed Liverpool front three, Alexander-Arnold racks up higher shot and goal creating actions. Such has been his influence in the opposition half that he can create about 4.4 shots per game and added to that he is able to create about 0.75 goals per game (or three goals every four games).
This can be attributed to Liverpool’s style of play, opting to play out wide before allowing forwards to dash into the box and take shots. As mentioned earlier, the tendency of Mo Salah to cut in enables Alexander-Arnold to find him in better positions and with a crowded opposition box coupled with his passing accuracy, it is easy to see why the full-back ranks so highly in these areas.
Now, with such high numbers in these fields, the next obvious question is what about the number of assists? Surely creating all these chances must have led to goals? Well, the answer is yes. Once again Alexander-Arnold outshines the midfielders and attackers of the Premier League and features second in the list of assists for the 2019/20 season, only behind a certain De Bruyne.
With 12 assists already during the season, he has surpassed his xA score of 8.6, indicating a strong performance so far. Despite being a fair way behind the leader, the full-back is at least four assists clear of his nearest competitor and such a stellar assist record has not been seen from full-backs of times past. We should also note that having claimed a world record the previous season by recording 12 assists in a single Premier League season, the youngster has already matched that tally in nine games less this season. This highlights his development and indicates that he has not yet reached his peak in terms of performance.
The above map also shows the origin of passing that leads to shots and also goals. As can be seen, the majority of Alexander-Arnold’s passing is direct and into the penalty area from the right flank. Early crossing, as mentioned earlier, is also further highlighted here with the majority of the balls being played towards the penalty spot or the centre of the box for the attackers to go for. The right-back has also shown the ability to drive further down the line and play crosses to the waiting forwards in the box. Such a direct approach of attacking has seen him rack up a good number of assists consistently.
While it is easy for us to get carried away by Alexander-Arnold’s phenomenal offensive stats, let us not forget that primarily he is a right-back and should possess adequate defensive qualities as well.
A major part of defending is tackling and the Premier League is known for its physicality and defenders lunging in for the ball. More so for full-backs who have to keep tricky wingers at bay for the majority of the 90 minutes. However, it is worrying to see that Alexander-Arnold ranks a mere 47th in the leader board for tackles, a fair distance behind the top.
His tendency to get high up the field so often leaves space for opposition attackers to exploit and most tackles he makes are higher up the field to suit Liverpool’s style of the ‘gegenpress’. Here is an example of the high press adopted.
In Liverpool’s famous Champions League match against Barcelona at Anfield, Klopp enforced his style of pressing high to win possession. That can be seen from the picture below where Alexander-Arnold spots a pass and moves higher to attack the ball and tackle the man.
However, this leaves a huge pocket of space in behind and had the Barcelona players shifted play to exploit this gap, they may have got better results. So the full-back’s defensive stat does not look as bad as it first seemed, due to his style of high pressing to suit the team’s tactical style.
Another important point to note is that Liverpool’s starting formation of 4-3-3 eventually shifts to a 3-4-3 when attacking and a 5-2-3 when defending. Allowing the defensive midfielder, usually Jordan Henderson or Fabinho to slot in between the centre-backs and provide some cover for them and allow Alexander-Arnold and fellow full-back Andrew Robertson to play higher up the pitch.
As a result, although the youngster’s defensive capabilities have been a subject of argument and discussion, it is safe to say that Klopp and Liverpool have been able to create a system where the full-back can attack to his potential while contributing defensively as well.
Working on his defensive abilities would do him no harm though – especially his recovery and tackling – and this may finally allow him to stake a claim for the status of the best full-back in the world and also help him cement a place in the England national team, who currently make use of different tactics.
As we have seen through this analysis in the form of a scout report, Alexander-Arnold has proven himself to be one of the best full-backs of the modern era and at 21 years old, we can safely say there is more to come. To have revolutionised the way full-backs should approach a game and make such a strong statement with his consistent performances is no small feat and he has thoroughly deserved the praises heaped on him.
In his own words, he is “just a lad from Liverpool, trying to achieve his dream” and with moments of magic and sheer brilliance he is slowly turning his dream into reality. A Champions League runner up and winner medal already in the drawer, the defender was so close to realising a bigger dream of his and Liverpool fans all over the world, the Premier League title. It all seems like just a matter of time though before the trophy returns to Anfield and if not this season, probably the next.
And if there’s one thing more certain than that it’s that Trent Alexander-Arnold, the boy who grew up on Merseyside, will not rest till it does.