“Trent Alexander-Arnold is reinventing the right-back role.”
How often have you heard something to that effect over the last couple of years? As the young Englishman has played a key role in Liverpool winning first the Champions league and now the Premier League, how often has he been feted as some kind of transformative force, the vanguard in a new era of creative right-backs?
Now, Alexander-Arnold is obviously a spectacular right-back. There can be no denying his brilliance. He is the first defender to notch more than 10 assists in consecutive Premier League seasons, he also holds the record for the most assists by a defender in Premier League history with 12, both in 2018/19 and 2019/20. He could yet break his own record before this season is out.
But Trent Alexander-Arnold cannot reinvent what had already been reinvented by one man and one man only: Daniel Alves da Silva aka Dani Alves. The legendary Brazilian right-back who thrilled European football for a decade of dominance between 2005 and 2015.
Obviously attacking full-backs have existed for a great deal longer than Alves has been a player, and they have even played alongside him too. Cafu thrilled us for years before we knew who Alves was, and Maicon and Philipp Lahm had storied careers at the very top of the world game, but they are both different types of player. Right-backs, sure, but much more orthodox in nature.
Alves, as well as Alexander-Arnold, is completely different kind of player. As much as a midfielder as a full-back. A relentlessly attacking force that takes part in every facet of his side’s attacking game from the build-up phase to the final ball.
He is most known for what he did with Barcelona; six La Liga titles, four Copas del Rey, four Spanish Supercopas, three UEFA Supercups, three FIFA Club World Cups and three Champions Leagues – that is a frankly staggering 23 trophies in eight seasons. The next most successful European side in that time period was Bayern Munich with 13.
But of course, Alves’ genius was also evident at Sevilla. Perhaps even moreso as the Brazilian was playing in a side without, you know, the best midfield of all-time. So often Alves was Sevilla’s right-back, central-midfielder, right-winger and even no. 10, all at the same time.
With Alves running the show, Sevilla won consecutive UEFA Cups in 2005 and 2006, then beat Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup to boot. They were the best side in La Liga (and perhaps all of Europe) in 2006/07 but just couldn’t make it count, finishing third behind Real Madrid and Barcelona. But that was a supreme side, powered by Alves’ genius which he would then take to Barcelona.
Obviously the trophy hauls are legendary, but when you look at the numbers things get really obscene. And this is where Alves’ place as the pioneer of the modern attacking full-back becomes clear. Not just a freight train moving up and down the flank, but an intricate playmaker.
Alves hit double figures for league assists on no less than five occasions. He is the only defender in La Liga (since 1999) to notch more than 10 assists in a single season (which he has done four times) including an astounding 15 assists in 2010/11.
He owns six of La Liga’s top 10 assisting defender spots for this century. And when you expand it out to Europe’s top five leagues (since 2007) then Alves owns the top two spots. His 14 from 2007/08, and the aforementioned 15. What’s more he did this without the aid of taking set-pieces, it was all open play magnificence.
And it was consistent magnificence. That is what truly set Alves apart from his peers. The Brazilian has 105 league assists to his name since 2006/07. The next highest defender in that time-frame? Marcelo with 59. Dani Alves has nearly double his nearest challenger. Think about how absurd that level of dominance is; you could add the next two highest ranked right-back’s assist totals together (Maicon’s 45 and Lahm’s 40) and Alves would still have more. No one else compares.
But the fact that Marcelo is second (and is the only other La Liga defender to get into double figures assists for a single season) is a fitting tribute to Alves. His compatriot, Marcelo used to be a hurricane footballer, an up-and-down buzzsaw of energy. But taking Alves as his example, he expanded his game to become a similar kind of playmaker to the Sevilla and Barcelona legend. And as such, his assist totals rose and what’s more, he was one of the chief playmakers behind Real Madrid’s Champions League domination.
Even Lahm, for so long the orthodox answer to Alves’ mould-breaking magnificence, began to play football in the same manner as the Brazilian. Influenced by Pep Guardiola, Lahm even spent a season playing defensive midfield. The change he made in his game helped him play an influential role in Germany winning the World Cup in 2014.
Click here to see the full Dani Alves stats gallery on Squawka’s Instagram page.
Alves’ legacy is everywhere. That the Brazilian has been followed as Barcelona‘s right-back not by a defender, but by a midfielder in Sergi Roberto. And that the joint-best right-back in Europe since 2015 has been Joshua Kimmich, another midfielder. And that Kimmich was supplanted by Alexander-Arnold, who was a midfielder as a youngster, speaks volumes to Alves’ influence. Now it’s not enough for full-backs to be freight trains that can tear up and down the line, now your full-back has to be a great footballer if they want to make it at the elite level. That is the standard that has been set.
Alexander-Arnold is the world’s best right-back, for sure, but he is no revolutionary. The Englishman is simply the latest evolution of the right-back, an evolution that traces its origins back to Alves’ dynamic and daring decade of domination. The Brazilian well and truly changed the game at Sevilla and Barcelona. Record-smasher, mould-breaker, Mes Que Un Full-back.