The big news from England’s team selection to face Andorra on Sunday, other than Gareth Southgate’s decision to make 11 changes – something no England manager has done since 1982 – was the inclusion of Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The 22-year-old’s presence in the squad and the subsequent starting lineup was far from a shock, given his incredible ceiling and devastating capabilities. What was surprising was the position in which Gareth Southgate decided to deploy the Liverpool star.
Alexander-Arnold has made his name as a right-back since bursting onto the scene at Anfield, and his effortless ability to spray the ball around the pitch and create chance after chance have seen him labelled as one of the best full-backs in world football.
It’s not all he’s been labelled, though. The Liverpool star’s defensive awareness and reading of the game have been called into question, particularly during the period when he was left exposed by the absence of the £75m comfort blanket that is Virgil van Dijk.
That dangerous attacking play combined with the occasional lapse at the back have seen many call for him to be tested in the centre of midfield – something that has yet to come to fruition. Jurgen Klopp sees no reason to enforce that change on the player, and understandably so.
Liverpool’s other right-back options can’t hold a candle to the talents of Alexander-Arnold, and when he’s so effective for his club in that role, why would you mix it up? You just wouldn’t.
But the superstar’s career in the Premier League and his career for his country are polar opposites. England’s unlimited refill of right-backs means that his place in the starting lineup is never guaranteed, and he’s been forced to play second fiddle to the likes of Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker and Reece James more often than not.
Liverpool supporters have been pulling their hair out over Alexander-Arnold’s omission from Southgate’s plans, and struggle to understand how the aforementioned stars have skipped the queue ahead of their son.
International football is a different ball game to domestic football though, and Klopp is an incredibly different coach to Southgate. The England boss takes huge delight in Trippier’s solid defensive skills, loves Walker for his recovery pace and appreciates James for his flexibility.
Luke Shaw’s attacking prowess on the left means Southgate often requires his right-back to hang back and stay close to his centre-backs too, making Alexander-Arnold’s unquestionable offensive skills redundant.
So, the Three Lions boss has seen this World Cup qualifier with Andorra as a chance to turn one of his greatest dilemmas into his biggest strength. The FOUR RIGHT-BACKS!? meme has dogged Southgate, but if one of the quartet can deputise at left-back, another two can slot in at centre-back and the other is a secret centre-midfielder waiting to be unleashed?
Well, problem solved.
Alexander-Arnold’s biggest strengths are his freakish passing range and wicked crosses, which have drawn comparisons with some of the best midfielders and wingers that the Premier League has ever seen. He can carry the ball with speed, boasts an enviable engine and is an accomplished defender – despite what Football Twitter will try to tell you.
Deploying him on the right of a midfield three does seem sensible then, even if Alexander-Arnold did not blow us away against Andorra. There were a few bright moments, sure, but for the most part he struggled to pick open a ludicrously deep Andorran defence and was also a bit clumsy in possession, registering the lowest pass completion rate of any England player in the first half.
After the break, he reverted to his tried and tested stomping ground – an attacking right-back role – with James moved forward into midfield.
So, does this mean that the Alexander-Arnold experiment needs to be condemned to the scrap heap?
Although his debut was not brilliant, it is well worth Southgate continuing to test the waters for a positional shift. The England boss will have watched a certain Kevin De Bruyne define a new inside-right role in recent years – something that would suit the Liverpool star’s traits down to the ground.
He’ll still be able to ping that cross-field ball to the left flank which he does so gracefully for Liverpool, and will whip crosses onto the head of England’s strikers, either from a slightly deeper and more central position, or by overloading the right flank and going on the overlap.
Midfield has been England’s supposed ‘weak spot’ for some time, with the rise of the functional but effective Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice to Euro 2020 finalists taking many of us by surprise.
Even so, there is space in the midfield for a creative, pacy, dynamic yet diligent presence, and Alexander-Arnold could be the man to add that to Southgate’s side.
And who knows? A few good test runs in his new position, against slightly stronger opposition than Andorra, and the Liverpool star could cement his spot in the Three Lions squad for years to come.