Football Features

Time for a change? Alexander-Arnold performance vs Real Madrid raises question of Liverpool future

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:37, 14 April 2021

Liverpool were knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage after a goalless draw against Real Madrid at Anfield, losing 3-1 on aggregate.

Jurgen Klopp’s side put up a fight in the second leg, constantly on the attack, and tested Real Madrid throughout with Trent Alexander-Arnold particularly motivated in trying to overcome the deficit.

After the first leg there was a lot of talk surrounding Alexander-Arnold and his defensive frailties, with the Englishman having a torrid time going up against Vinicius. As our own Muhammad Butt put it in his player ratings, it was a night to forget for the Englishman who was targeted by Real Madrid and played a big part in their second goal heading a harmless long ball into Marco Asensio’s path.

It added to the already existing conversations of Alexander-Arnold and whether he should be in England’s squad for the European Championships, having been left out of the recent Three Lions squad by Gareth Southgate. While everyone has their bad games, in the age of social media, this was one that will have stay fresh in the memory of those who prefer the likes of Kieran Trippier, Reece James or Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Alexander-Arnold put in an improved defensive display against Aston Villa at the weekend, completing shutting down the opponents’ left flank, and also scored the vital winner for Liverpool’s first win at Anfield in 2021 – a goal his performance deserved.

But it was “only” Aston Villa. How would he fare in the second leg against Real Madrid? Well, as it turns out, pretty well.

Fans who like to see Liverpool suffer were looking forward to Vinicius having another storming performing raiding the wings and getting the better of Alexander-Arnold but it just didn’t come. One of the reasons was because Real Madrid were happy to sit back and absorb the Liverpool pressure, feeling confident that their defending would be good enough to keep the hosts out. But when they did attack, Alexander-Arnold was there.

The 22-year-old made two tackles from right-back, bettered only by Fabinho among his Liverpool teammates, had won possession a joint-most 10 times for the Reds (only Casemiro won it on the across both teams) and made three interceptions. A defensive highlight from the Englishman came in the second half when Rodrygo was flying towards the goalline, looking to kill the tie but his run was perfectly tracked by Alexander-Arnold who tackled the Brazilian, kept the ball in play and looked to move his team up from the back.

Because of the way he has played in the past, Alexander-Arnold’s defending is always going to come under scrutiny, but as Rio Ferdinand put it, he is still only young.

“You’ve got to look at it one way, it shows you how far he’s come over the past couple of years that everyone is honing in on this kid’s performances, dissecting it, taking it apart,” the former Manchester United defender said on BT Sport.

“Yes some parts of his game in terms of defending need to be improved, but what 21/22-year-old hasn’t? It’s normal. It’s because he’s under the microscope in big games, yes, but the kid’s an immense talent.”

It’s only two consecutive games so far, but you can see Alexander-Arnold’s defending has improved. He isn’t the flying winger we got used to seeing at the wrong times, picking his moments to move up the pitch when he knows there is protection behind him – or the lack of a threat. Alexander-Arnold grows into games in the attacking sense, feeling out where the danger to his flank is going to be rather than going straight into all-out attack mode.

Once it became clear to Alexander-Arnold, and those watching at home, that Real Madrid wouldn’t be attacking as much the Englishman advanced. And as a surprise to no one, the Englishman was excellent.

Alexander-Arnold was the man Liverpool looked to in their time of need, having more touches than any other Reds player, and making 54 passes in the opposition half, another team-high showing his advanced position as the game went on. He was constantly whopping balls into the Real Madrid box with ferocity, attempting 17 in total that were just lacking a finishing touch from his teammates in the middle – both from open play and corners.

The 22-year-old also created more chances than any other player on the pitch with six, again being let down by his teammates. Alexander-Arnold did absolutely everything he possibly could to try and drag Liverpool back into the tie, but it just wasn’t enough. He needed help.

“He has an ability to find passes that other people, other midfielders, other No.8s in the world can’t find, let alone right-backs,” Ferdinand said, and that brought up the age-old conversations on whether Alexander-Arnold should be pushed into midfield.

It’s a position he played as a youngster and his passing range would make him very dangerous from the middle of the pitch, with some England fans dreaming it up as a way to fit in the many right-back talents they have in the national pool.

“He’s too good to be a full-back,” Gary Lineker said.

“I see him as a midfielder, he used to be a midfield player he was kind of thrust into playing at right-back and he’s stuck there. You could see him being a (Philipp) Lahm, a (Joshua) Kimmich, even like (Joao) Cancelo plays at Manchester City, he’s got that within him hasn’t he?”

Alexander-Arnold does have that in him but, as Ferdinand said quite cheekily, he may not be able to make that switch at Liverpool.

“He’d need to go play for Pep and that’s not going to happen, so he’s got to stick where he is. I don’t think Klopp’s going to change him.

“Has he got the ability to do it? He was a midfielder as a kid, so I definitely believe he has but it’s all about the manager and the structure within the team. And I don’t see Klopp switching him from a full-back to midfield.”

So the question is, will there be a change for Alexander-Arnold in the near future? And if so will it be just a positional one, a change of club, or both?


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