There were so many strengths to Liverpool’s sensational Champions League-winning team of 2018/19 and title-winning team of 2019/20 that it was difficult to stand out, but Trent Alexander-Arnold managed to do so. In playing so influential a role from full-back, Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson perfectly encapsulate the evolving nature of their position.
Alexander-Arnold grew up playing in central midfield, and his past in that position has contributed to him becoming one of the most technically gifted right-backs of the modern era, alongside Dani Alves, so key for Pep Guardiola’s outstanding Barcelona. Despite playing in defence, with 12 assists in 2018/19 and 13 in 2019/20, Alexander Arnold finished in the Premier League’s top three creators in two successive seasons and, in doing so, became the first defender to reach double figures in consecutive campaigns. A decline in his form and figures in 2020/21 coincided with a downturn in Liverpool’s, but there is absolutely no doubting his enduring quality.
The most impressive aspect of Alexander-Arnold’s game is his crossing. He has wonderful technique, and can vary his crosses, depending on his position, to pick out a specific teammate with devastating accuracy.
The speed at which he releases and plays the ball is crucial. Most of his crosses are made with his first or second touch, and he puts pace on the ball; what is so effective about Alexander-Arnold is that he does both without sacrificing quality or accuracy. His crosses particularly test defences when they are retreating towards their own goal and there is space between that defence and their goalkeeper for Alexander-Arnold to aim for and for Liverpool’s front three to run into (below). Even when he delays until after taking a touch – usually to control an aerial ball – the time between his touches is minimal, and his control is so effective that he can still deliver into the penalty area before the opposition are set.
He is as effective when putting height on the ball as he is when he drills a low cross into the centre. His low deliveries are often the more eye-catching because they can be breathtakingly effective – he has the ability to use his laces to put power on the ball and slice through opponents to find his target (below). When those crosses reach the player Alexander-Arnold intended, they create a strong chance of scoring, and regularly result in an assist.
He can overlap and cross from positions near to the byline, but he is at his best when delivering from deep. In the way that David Beckham did not have the dribbling ability or pace to beat an opponent but could bend the ball out of the reach of his closest marker, Alexander-Arnold relies on a similar ability rather than acceleration to burst away from a defender. His England teammate Kieran Trippier is another full-back who does similarly; on the opposite wing for Liverpool, Robertson is far more athletic, so finds space to cross through penetrative runs into deeper territory.
He is a huge asset at attacking set-pieces, not only for his crossing, but also for his shots from direct free-kicks. He is composed and reliable in big moments, and can produce the perfect delivery under pressure, doing so particularly memorably for Divock Origi in Liverpool’s sensational Champions League semi-final comeback win over Barcelona in May 2019.
He is calm and capable in possession, able to combine with a central midfielder with a short pass but so accurate with his long-range passes that he can play a killer ball directly from his position at right-back. He curves balls forwards for a teammate to chase into the right channel, but is even more dangerous when switching play to the left wing or playing a diagonal ball over the opposition’s right-back.
Role at Liverpool
In Jürgen Klopp’s 4-3-3, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson provide Liverpool’s width. While Mo Salah makes numerous runs into the right channel and Sadio Mané does the same on the left, their primary aim is to get in behind the opposition and pose a threat on goal. Alexander-Arnold and Robertson maintain wide positions, and carry a threat on the wings.
Alexander-Arnold constantly looks to get into a position to cross, and he is regularly able to do so because of the accurate passes he receives from his teammates (above). He often receives the ball beyond the opposition’s midfield having advanced as play builds on the opposite wing because he can get into those positions in the knowledge that he is likely to receive a pass.
When Liverpool are building possession, opposing defences are naturally preoccupied with the threat they pose in central areas and will focus on preventing passes to their front three, often leaving their full-backs open to receive. While Roberto Firmino makes runs into deeper positions, Salah and Mané push their opponents back, and their full-backs advance into the space that that leaves.
Alexander-Arnold tends to look for the ball to feet – in contrast to Robertson, who likes to receive on the run – and will usually look to play the ball forwards. He is especially dangerous when looking for the run of Salah into the right channel and clipping the ball down the line into space for the Egyptian to chase (above). That, and his switches of play to Robertson and diagonal balls that look for Mané, are hugely important in Liverpool being able to stretch opponents.
They play brilliant football, and like to keep the ball on the floor where possible, but also clearly recognise that there are times when it is best to go direct, and have plenty of success in doing so. When the runs of Salah and Mané are tracked, space will be opened up in central areas, and Alexander-Arnold has the vision and ability to spot an opportunity to find Firmino’s feet or the run of an advancing number eight such as Jordan Henderson or Curtis Jones to progress play through the middle of the pitch.
Few other full-backs provide as constant an attacking threat as Alexander-Arnold, and with so much of his career ahead of him, he can still improve. That really is some prospect for both Liverpool and England.