Football Features

How Trent Alexander-Arnold could emulate Gareth Bale without changing positions

By Ben Green

Trent Alexander-Arnold for Player of the Year

Published: 14:16, 13 January 2020

“No one grows up wanting to be Gary Neville,” Trent Alexander-Arnold recently said, quoting another Liverpool fan favourite. By the end this season, he may have achieved a rare feat managed by another, perhaps more glamorous, ‘Gareth’ from the Premier League history books.

Many expect the 21-year-old to be named PFA Young Player of the Year for 2019/20, but could he go one further? He is third-favourite to win the main Player of the Year right now with most bookmakers and Eni Aluko, among others, feels he is on course to do so. “The vision, finesse, technique and the number of assists Alexander-Arnold has contributed over the past two seasons have raised the bar for the position,” the former Chelsea and Juventus striker wrote in the Guardian.

Should he go on to scoop a Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year double, he will join an exclusive club of elite-level players to be awarded both in a single season whose membership currently does not extend beyond Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo habitually wreaked havoc on the wing to bring home the baubles, while Bale had to reinvent himself as a winger to secure the esteemed silverware. Alexander-Arnold, however, is achieving similar numerical feats without having to reposition himself further up the field.

There have been cries for Alexander-Arnold to one day transition from right-back to midfielder, a switch similar to that which catapulted Bale to stardom. But the fact of the matter is he seems determined to hit similar heights without deserting the position he calls home.

How does Alexander-Arnold compare to a 2012/13 Bale?

Bale was once considered a bad omen in a Spurs team that failed to win any of his first 24 appearances. Then Inter Milan in the Champions League happened and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The Welshman made light work of Maicon at the San Siro in October 2010 and netted a memorable second-half hat-trick. This proved a catalyst in Bale becoming the freakishly good goalscoring winger who cost Real Madrid a world-record fee three years later.

Under Harry Redknapp, and later Andre Villas-Boas, Bale went from a jinxed left-back to a wing wizard, culminating in an exceptionally fruitful 2012/13 campaign in he scooped the illustrious Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year double.

Alexander-Arnold is in with a chance of following Bale’s – and Ronaldo’s – fabled path this season, though it is clear that he will not do so by replicating Bale’s incredible 21-goal Premier League haul from 2012/13. That’s simply not his game. Instead, the full-back has forged a reputation for his scintillating playmaking abilities. Meanwhile, Bale assumed the more classic Player of the Year credentials by becoming the primary source of goals for Spurs that year.

But beyond those high-gloss, goalscoring figures, Alexander-Arnold has already trumped the Welshman’s assist tally (eight to four). To get even more granular, Bale created 75 chances* for his teammates in 2012/13 at a rate of 2.3 per 90 minutes, while Alexander-Arnold has already registered 60 at a rate of 2.9 per 90. Considering we’ve only just passed the halfway point of the season, Alexander-Arnold should surpass Bale’s chances created on his current trajectory, and by some margin.

  • What is a chance created? Opta define this as “the final pass or pass-cum-shot leading to the recipient of the ball having an attempt at goal.”

And so, to expect Alexander-Arnold to deliver a better season as a goalscoring wide-man than Bale in 2012/13 misses the point. The Welshman outdoes Liverpool’s academy graduate for goals and take-ons by some distance (4.2 per 90 to 1.7 per 90). For Alexander-Arnold to convince voters to back him over Kevin De Bruyne or Sadio Mane, he’ll have to rely on to the allure of his novel interpretation of a role in what is also the division’s best defence right now. In other words, he will have to continue ‘running the game’ from right-back for a Liverpool team that continues to racks up clean sheets at their current rate.

The data analytics tool smarterscout has a rating called ‘attacking output.’ This, they explain, “is a measure of contributions to xGF (expected goals for) per minute that a player’s team is in possession of the ball.” The ratings are adjusted to reflect the player’s position and league. The lowest possible rating is 0, the highest 99 – which happens to be Alexander-Arnold’s score in terms of attacking output.

Alexander-Arnold stats

Visit smarterscout to create your own comparisons by clicking the image.

His problem is that, in terms of attacking output, De Bruyne also scores 99 while Liverpool’s top-scorer, Sadio Mane, has built a fairly impressive statistical profile for himself this season, as well. However, Alexander-Arnold’s defensive contributions continue to go under the radar.

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A year of exceeding transition

Alexander-Arnold rocked the football world last season after his talismanic exploits from right-back helped guide Liverpool to a sixth European trophy as well as suffering just the single defeat across the entire Premier League campaign.

The England international became the first defender in Premier League history to provide 12 assists in a single campaign and also the youngest player to start in two consecutive Champions League finals.

He also entered the Guinness World Records book for 2020 after making the most Premier League assists by a defender in a single season, and stunned Barcelona, as his ingenious quick corner-kick bamboozled Ernesto Valverde’s experienced defence and sent the Reds to a European final.

And yet, this precocious young defender is somehow getting better game by game. He was recently named the Premier League Player of the Month for December – the first defender to earn this accolade since Virgil van Dijk a year ago – while the only player to better his eight league assists this season is none other than playmaker extraordinaire De Bruyne.

As it stands, Alexander-Arnold is bettering his chances created per 90 this season compared to last campaign (2.93 to 1.75), his big chances created per 90 (0.63 to 0.4), successful passes per 90 (52.25 to 47.99), touches in opposition box per 90 (1.81 to 1.46) and shot conversion rate per 90 (0.65 to 0.17).

Not only that, but a number of his defensive attributes have improved, including recoveries per 90 (6.3 to 6.17), aerials won per 90 (0.44 to 0.33), blocks per 90 (0.34 to 0.07) and interceptions per 90 (1.37 to 1.28).

It’s clear Alexander-Arnold is improving not only in an attacking sense, but also from a defensive standpoint as well, making him an exceptionally frightening proposition for opposition managers.

And like Bale, Alexander-Arnold is also something of a dead-ball specialist. He has already been compared to set-piece virtuoso David Beckham by former Liverpool player Danny Murphy, while the 21-year-old also told The Times that he models his free-kick “routine” on the former England star.

But has the Liverpool defender done enough to claim the comparisons previously bestowed upon another England right-back? Kieran Trippier has already been labelled the ‘Bury Beckham’ so perhaps the ‘Merseyside Mihajlovic’ would be more fitting for Alexander-Arnold’s set-piece excellence.

Whichever way we dissect or analyse Alexander-Arnold’s game, it is clear that this young talent is well underway with respect to his publicly-stated quest of bringing about “a different way of thinking of a full-back.”