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Unassuming Icon Trent Alexander-Arnold Leads Liverpool’s League Quest

Unassuming Icon Trent Alexander-Arnold Leads Liverpool’s League Quest

Monday, 13 January, 2020 - 06:15
Trent Alexander-Arnold can take good set pieces as well as supply excellent crosses to his forwards at Liverpool. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images
London - Eni Aluko
In its 46 years, the PFA’s Player of the Year award has been given to 41 people, representing 15 clubs and 12 countries from England to Egypt. The winners have been young and old, tall and short, but they all have one thing in common: none of them have been full-backs.

There is a lot of football still to be played this season but already it seems there is no doubt about the destiny of the title, and though there are several Liverpool players who will be in the discussion when the individual awards are handed out, I think based on the campaign so far Trent Alexander-Arnold is edging it. I am a big fan of this kid on so many levels.

It’s not just his contribution to the team, though that is immense, it is what he represents for English football as a homegrown player of genuine world class, and as a Liverpudlian at a club which has waited 30 years to win the league. Virgil van Dijk has sustained the levels he set when he won the PFA award last year while Sadio Mané has been outstanding in attack together with the hugely likable Roberto Firmino. I don’t think Mo Salah has been anywhere near as good this season as when he won the award two years ago, so I think the big award winners will come from that shortlist.

The fact that a 21-year-old full-back is even in the conversation is a measure of his excellence. People talk about him redefining the position, and he is clearly doing something that right-backs haven’t managed before. 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.

Next week will be the third anniversary of his full league debut, against Manchester United at Old Trafford in a 1-1 draw. For most of the 2017-18 season he was second choice to Joe Gomez, but then last year he was third in the assist rankings and this season only Kevin De Bruyne has more than him, an astonishing contribution from a defender. Defensively he does his job, but it’s his picking out passes, switching play, his crossing ability, his consistency and his overall sharpness in match situations that is just amazing to see. When he was a child he wanted to be Steven Gerrard, which must have seemed like a far-fetched dream at the time. Sometimes we grow up wanting to be our idol, but actually we can do more.

What Gerrard did as a midfielder for Liverpool was phenomenal but Alexander-Arnold is going above and beyond what he expected of himself, employing those midfielder qualities at right-back. He has spoken about his brothers, who sacrificed their football ambitions to allow him to realise his own. His first football memory, when he was six, is of watching the open‑top bus carrying Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League winners drive past his house. His background, his memories of sneaking to Melwood to catch glimpses of his heroes through the gates, mean he will be continuously inspired in that changing room. When he lifts the Premier League trophy after the club’s 30-year wait, it will be completing a full circle.

You can’t buy that connection in the transfer market. Jürgen Klopp might be a master of motivation but one of his great skills is the ability to recognise talent in a young player and then develop it to the point where they become what Alexander-Arnold is now, where other managers might just spend a ridiculous amount of money on an established full-back who still wouldn’t be anywhere near as good. It seems to be hard sometimes for a manager to see the quality of players he is working with, when others are getting headlines elsewhere – look at De Bruyne, who was not rated at all by José Mourinho at Chelsea but has since become, well, Kevin De Bruyne. Liverpool focus a lot of their play on getting the ball wide to their attacking full-backs, but it is what they do with those crossing opportunities that sets them apart.

Andy Robertson is exceptional on the left but he is being left in the shade by the man on the other flank. It is not only what he does with those crosses, it’s his ability to come inside and see a pass, to shoot from outside the box, to take set pieces, to pull the ball back to the forwards with pace and accuracy. In Liverpool’s win over Leicester on Boxing Day, Firmino’s movement for their third goal after the ball was played to Alexander-Arnold on the right showed that he knew where the ball was going, and the delivery was perfection. Everyone bangs on about the corner he took against Barcelona last season – the fearlessness, the vision, the quality – but he has just continued from there, making it look almost routine. Attacking full-backs are nothing new but what we haven’t seen is this level of quality and consistency.

The only one I can think of who has made a similar contribution in terms of delivery in attacking areas is Marcelo at Real Madrid, though the Brazilian is 31 and has only once reached double figures for assists in a league season while Alexander-Arnold is on course to do it for the second time at the age of 21. Marcelo has stood out from other full-backs because of his ability to come inside, combine with forwards and get goals, but you could argue that Alexander-Arnold is now the best in the world in that position. And what makes him all the more exceptional is the fact he is a local lad who is quite unassuming, quite shy, says all the right things, and is just quietly going about his business of being an outstanding footballer.

Liverpool play Tottenham on Saturday and then Manchester United, the only team to have taken league points off them this season and who overperform against the top sides, before a long run of games they would expect to win. If they are going to trip up, this is the period when it is going to happen. Already there is little doubt they are going to win the league, but if they win these two I think there’s a good chance they’ll go unbeaten. They have shown an incredible level of consistency and hunger and when finally, after three decades and generation after generation of gifted but frustrated footballers, Liverpool lift the Premier League trophy there will be no denying the contribution of Alexander-Arnold, an unassuming icon.

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