It was not a shock to see Trent Alexander-Arnold start at right-back against Arsenal on Sunday. Sure, it was a little frustrating after Joe Gomez turned in a solid performance earlier in the week at Stamford Bridge in a nil-nil draw with Chelsea (Liverpool should have lost due to the defensive errors of the rest of the back four). Yet, Jurgen Klopp has shown over and over again that he will recall Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk for every big game barring injury.
Unfortunately, in the first half, Alexander-Arnold and Van Dijk were again culpable of bad defending. From the kick-off, Arsenal made it a point to attack Alexander-Arnold with Gabriel Martinelli twisting and turning the right-back. The previous fixture between the two clubs, a 3-2 Arsenal win at the Emirates in October, saw the Brazilian get the best of Alexander-Arnold multiple times across the 90-minute match. Mikel Arteta was ready to do it again.
Alexander-Arnold is a defensive liability. There is no way around it anymore. In previous seasons, Liverpool’s ability to press, win the ball, and attack meant the defence experienced less pressure. The defence has been a shambles for much of this season. Yet, the signs were there at the end of the last campaign that there was something wrong with the defence.
In six of the final seven matches in all competitions in 2021-22, Liverpool conceded at least one goal in each game. Their only clean sheet came in the FA Cup final against Chelsea, a nil-nil draw that Liverpool won on penalties.
Before the defence suddenly began conceding goals, Liverpool had kept four clean sheets in consecutive games in all competitions. It wasn’t uncommon to see Liverpool string two, three, or four games together with clean sheets in 2021-22. It goes back to the pressure, win the ball, and attack philosophy of Klopp’s heavy metal football. Win the ball high up the pitch to take pressure off the defence. Liverpool aren’t winning the ball now, so the pressure builds. Teams aren’t afraid to attack Van Dijk or Alexander-Arnold and goals are conceded.
A New Role in Midfield
Klopp used Alexander-Arnold in two positions on Sunday against Arsenal. When the Gunners had the ball, Alexander-Arnold was a right-back and a liability. But when the Reds had the ball, Alexander-Arnold played in central midfield as a No 6. Fans and pundits have been crying out for Alexander-Arnold to play in midfield for years. Although he didn’t play purely in the position on Sunday, it was a sign of what could come in the future.
At first, it looked like Alexander-Arnold had simply wandered into midfield. Against Man City at the Etihad, Alexander-Arnold had been caught out of position multiple times and was culpable of poor defending, so fans could be forgiven for thinking it was his decision to play in midfield and not tactical. Yet, the move to playing more centrally was a coaching decision, giving him the chance to get on the ball as much as possible.
Alexander-Arnold’s heatmap shows that he spent most of the game as a right-sided central midfielder rather than a right-back. He wasn’t expected to spend as much time defending in wide areas, as Ibrahima Konate, Liverpool’s most mobile centre-back, covered for him much of the time.
The tactical change caused issues for Liverpool in the first half. It worked into Arsenal’s hands as Alexander-Arnold had to play two positions. However, it all changed when Granite Xhaka stupidly kicked Alexander-Arnold in the leg. Xhaka’s bonehead move only fired-up Alexander-Arnold, something that hasn’t happened much this campaign.
The Liverpool No 66 would later skin Oleksandr Zinchenko in the final third, before making a perfect chipped cross to Roberto Firmino, who headed in the equaliser. The cross was classic Alexander-Arnold, something that has been lacking this season.
A Need for a Plan B
The decision to play Alexander-Arnold in central midfield when Liverpool had the ball was clever. Yet, it simply reaffirmed that Liverpool need to move Alexander-Arnold out of defence and into the midfield. Gomez could slot into the right-back position, allowing Alexander-Arnold to move into the No 6 role.
Klopp has been unwilling to use a Plan B this season, sticking to his tried and true 4-3-3 formation. Yet, using two midfield pivots, one being Alexander-Arnold and the other either Fabinho, Henderson, or Thiago, could give the defence much-needed protection. What Liverpool would lose in attacking areas from the right-back position, Gomez would make up for in defensive solidity. Gomez can play all four positions across a four-man defence. However, he continues to prove the right-back spot is his best. Perhaps that is down to Alexander-Arnold’s weaknesses when defending.
Against Arsenal, Alexander-Arnold had 76 touches and completed 80% of his passes. There have been plenty of times this season, Alexander-Arnold struggled to make the simplest passes, choosing to attempt a Hollywood pass rather than a much easier one. His 80% pass success rate was higher than the league average of 77.4%. He had four key passes, compared to his 1.9 Premier League average, according to Whoscored.com.
On the defensive side of the ball, he won 50% of his tackles, making four successful tackles from eight attempts. He only averages 1.6 tackles per Premier League game, according to Whoscored.com. Whoscored’s graphics show that Alexander-Arnold’s tackle attempts were mostly in defensive or wide areas. He added one interception, one clearance, and one defensive aerial won.
Further evidence of Alexander-Arnold’s strong midfield play can be seen in his passing map. He completed 41 of 51 passes, many of which were from more central areas. Perhaps it is time for Alexander-Arnold to remove one of the No 6s from his shirt and become a central midfielder.
A move into the midfield isn’t uncommon for right-backs. Bayern Munich converted Philipp Lahm from a world-class right-back into a world-class central midfielder. The Bavarians then did the same with Joshua Kimmich. In the case of Lahm, he had already spent half his career playing in defence before making the move.
Alexander-Arnold played midfield during his time in Liverpool’s academy. He wasn’t moved into the right-back position until a teenager. It makes perfect sense to play him more in the No 6 role, giving Gomez the chance to play at right-back to shore up the defence.
It would also potentially mean Liverpool do not need to sign more than one midfielder this summer, although two should be the bare minimum with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita leaving after their contracts expire. A right-back should have already been on the list of needed players for this summer’s transfer window. Moving Alexander-Arnold to central midfield would only make that need more apparent, but it could help shore up Liverpool’s leaky defence.
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