Football News

Jose Enrique: Trent Alexander-Arnold’s hybrid role leaves Liverpool exposed at the back

By Harry Edwards

Published: 10:30, 16 November 2023

Ex-Liverpool and Newcastle defender Jose Enrique has spoken about the situations at his former clubs.

The Spaniard discussed Liverpool’s defence, in particular the return to form of Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s role in the team, as well as Darwin Nunez and Liverpool’s search for a Roberto Firmino replacement.

Enrique also talked about Newcastle’s Champions League hopes, Eddie Howe, and the signings they would need to make to challenge in European competitions next year.

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HE: Liverpool have the joint-best defensive record in terms of goals conceded in the Premier League this season. How vital do you think Virgil van Dijk has been to that, and has he perhaps reclaimed his place as the Premier League’s best centre–back?

JE: Yeah, for me he’s definitely claimed that position again. Obviously the season, there is still a long way [to go], but definitely that’s the Van Dijk more close to the Van Dijk that we all knew in the first few seasons at Liverpool. [He] was like nobody I’ve ever seen in that position to be honest with you. It was over everyone else, you know, any striker, any winger, anyone it just didn’t matter. It looked easy for him.

I don’t think he’s in that kind of level, but even then he’s still the best centre-back in the Premier League. He’s that good, you know. Definitely, he’s outstanding, he’s been fantastic this season and I’m so happy to see him like that. Because I could imagine how it is with a surgery like his, coming back from that, always a little bit scared with things at the start, he’s not him. He’s a human being, all of us, I didn’t have that injury but I had something pretty similar to that. And it’s very difficult to come back and feel comfortable. And it looks like it feels nice, he feels completely confident and happy again.

HE: Trent Alexander-Arnold says he is studying John Stones and Rodri as he develops in his new ‘hybrid’ role. How would you compare him to those players?

JE: For me it’s nothing like that. “More like Rodri” no one is like Rodri. Rodri is different class. Stones, it’s true that he’s been doing a good job because he actually played there as a midfielder and played there as a right back as well, because Pep does something similar – well, Klopp does something similar to Pep because actually Pep started with this first. And actually, for me, it’s not something I believe too much for Liverpool, because I believe that right side is very exposed because Trent does that. And actually Klopp changed the whole system just for Trent.

Now, if Liverpool change the system maybe with three at the back consistently, not just for attacking, for defending as well, just play maybe with two holding midfielders with Trent being one of them and everything like that. I believe he will do well like this with two there. But now that like you say, hybrid role, I think Liverpool are very exposed in that right side. And now playing against Manchester City with Doku in there, I want to see Trent there. Hopefully he does amazing, but now we want to see like we’ve seen many games this season. But that side, Liverpool is a little bit exposed and I think it, as well, has to do because I don’t think Trent wants to play as right back anymore. He loves to play more in the middle role, because he has more control of the game, he has more vision, he can play left, right, and obviously the ability is there. He’s world class with the ball at his feet, there’s no doubt about that. But I think it’s a little bit different because the right side of Liverpool is very exposed because of it.

Obviously Stones played there as a holding midfielder in the past, but he’s played as a right back as well. And then Rodri is no comparison. Rodri, it’s his main position. Rodri, I don’t think anyone can compare with him in the world right now.

HE: At the other end of the pitch, Darwin Nunez set up Mohamed Salah for the fourth time this season with a nice pass vs Brentford. Has he convinced you he’s good enough to be a title-challenging striker yet?

JE: For me, I still believe he’s a good striker, 100%. If not, Liverpool doesn’t pay this kind of money for a player, that’s the truth. For me, I like him a lot, I think he’s improved a lot since he’s arrived, it’s true. I still believe that, for me, I’d like to play Jota and Gakpo as a striker before him. I still believe that. Now, he’s doing well, yeah, no one can take that from him. And in a very, very difficult situation, he’s still fighting and trying to get that. The good thing is that Liverpool fans love him, and give him that confidence, extra confidence, that he needs to keep improving on that. But for me, in a way that I believe is like Firmino was for this tema, not a chance, and I don’t think he will ever be. But not him, not even Gakpo or Jota, even. But if you ask me, between the three of them, I actually believe Gakpo and Jota are in front of him as a number nine.

HE: From a Liverpool fan’s perspective, there are some doubts about Man Utd at the minute, with Erik ten Hag. Which potential Ten Hag replacement would make you most worried about a Man Utd resurgence?

JE: Well, to be honest with you, I don’t know. Obviously, I believe that any manager would be proud to manage that kind of club, because it’s one of the best clubs in the world, even if I don’t like to say, that’s the truth. Worry about that? I don’t know, a lot of top managers, they are already in other teams. I think Mauricio Pochettino could have done an amazon job there but obviously he was picked by Chelsea. And Zinedine Zidane, I’m not sure he wants to come back to manage to go to a project like Manchester United is at the moment. I’m not sure he will get into that, I doubt it.

For me I think last season, he was good, but many things are happening with the Cristiano Ronaldo situation. I think he handled it very well. But then Sancho, and other stuff in the dressing room that he made public and things like that, I don’t think the players are very happy about it. Obviously, talking from the outside point of view, I have no information from the players. But you can see something is not working, because if you look at the players, they are good enough to at least fight for the top four. They are still not far away, it’s true, but this team, they should improve from last season, I actually believe they are a worse team than last season. That’s my opinion.

The good thing, for the first time in a long time after Ferguson, they are actually believing in him and trying to give him time. Even if the things are not working as good as they believe they will, so fair play to them. But I’m actually happy that he is still there because things are not going very well for them at the moment.

HE: With so many injured right now (Shaw, Robertson, Estupinan, Chilwell), who’s the Premier League’s best left-back currently?

JE: I don’t know, I love Zinchenko, I love him for example. Best one? I’m not sure, for me, all others fit, I love Robertson to be honest with you. And not because he plays for Liverpool. I really love him, I think he’s top class. But with all the injuries that you mentioned from the top teams as well, I love Estupinan from Brighton as well. But I think Zinchenko, I like Zinchenko a lot from a top team that really like to have the ball and everything like that, he’s a complete full-back. I like him a lot.

HE: With so many players injured, will Eddie Howe prove himself as a world-class manager if he steers Newcastle through their next six season-defining games? They’ve got Chelsea, PSG, Man Utd, Everton, Tottenham and AC Milan

JE: We have the ratings of world class, things like that, everyone has them different. For me, world class is Pep Guardiola, Klopp, Ancelotti, Zinedine Zidane when he was at Real Madrid. You know, that kind of world class manager for me. To put Eddie Howe in that kind of level without having done anything really for Newcastle. Yeah, he put them in the Champions League again, he’s doing a fantastic job don’t get me wrong, I love Eddie Howe, I really believe they should stick with him, I love him. I really believe he can put Newcastle like he did last year. This season they are struggling more because of the injuries, and I don’t think the squad is strong enough to compete for everything. And he’s proving that now with all the injuries that they have. But I really like him as a manager.

Now, world class, you cannot put him in the standards of Klopp, Guardiola, this kind of manager, at least not yet. In the future, you never know, but not yet. No chance. I think we have to respect Klopp and Guardiola for everything that they have done. Even, again I repeat myself, I love Eddie Howe and I really believe he’s the manager for Newcastle. I love him.

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HE: Do you think Newcastle can make it into the knockout stages of the Champions League, given where they stand right now?

JE: They can. It’s going to be tough, because they have probably the most difficult group in the Champions League this season. But if they don’t, and they get into the Europa League, they are able to fight in the Europa League as well with other big teams like Liverpool and teams like that to try to win it. Still, European football, they’ve not been in this part for a very long time, and I’m sure the fans will be very, very happy about that. Obviously they will want to stay in the Champions League because, as well, it gives more money to the club, the fans.

Obviously it’s not the same to play Champions League or Europa League, it’s not even close. But fair enough, if they can finish third and play in the Europa League after the group, I think it will still be massive compared with other teams they have in the group. It’s crazy that they are able to even get into the Europa League, if they do, I think it’s an achievement as well.

But even if they go to the Champions League, if they go through to the next stage, it will be amazing for them, for the fans to be more excited about what is coming. But it’s true that, maybe, they will put the Premier League to the side a little, for the manager as well, because he will want to get as far as possible. So let’s see, but I think what they are doing is amazing. The group is very difficult and whatever position they finish, it’s great because they deserve to be there and it’s the toughest group. You can’t compare what these kinds of clubs have, for a very long time as a club, with Newcastle at the moment, they need to keep growing and growing and growing.

HE: If they do get into the Champions League knockout stages, or Europa League, what signings do you think they would need to make in January? What additions to their squad to actually contend for those titles?

JE: The problem for me, I like the left-back they signed, I like the right-back they signed, but you cannot always rely on signing young players. Because at the end, maybe you get one of the starters and you put a young player in, it’s okay, nothing happens. But when you have four or five injuries, to put them with, like for example Lewis Hall. I think he’s a good prospect, I think he can do well, obviously it depends on him. But he’s not been doing well, it’s all the pressure on him, all of a sudden from nothing, ‘Okay, let’s go and play’.

That’s why, for me, I believe in the signing of young players, yes, but not all your subs can be young players. And obviously they’ve been unlucky with the striker situation as well because both of them are prone to injury. Both of them were out, Anthony Gordon was playing in the last game. But what they should sign, I think they need a midfielder, because with Tonali because now you have a big problem. 100% they need a midfielder.

I think you need someone top, for Almiron, as well on that side, left footed, someone that can compete with Almiron for the starting position. And probably centre-back as well. That’s what I believe they could do, you know centre-back maybe they can delay the problem a little bit, because Lascelles is there as a third choice. But even then I believe they need a centre-back as well, you know. But the other two definitely are a midfielder and a right winger, 100%.

Jose Enrique was speaking to Squawka on behalf of Grosvenor Sport.