It was supposed to be a tricky test for Liverpool. A trip to face second-placed Leicester is not straightforward at the best of times, let alone as the first game back after a mid-season trip to Qatar. Yet, inspired by the sensational Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool made light work of Brendan Rodgers’ side on Thursday. They are now 13 points clear at the top of the Premier League table.
Alexander-Arnold himself described this as Liverpool’s best performance of the season. It is difficult to disagree. The Reds controlled the match from start to finish. They created numerous scoring opportunities and conceded few at the other end. A 4-0 victory did not flatter them in the slightest.
Most impressive of all was Alexander-Arnold’s display. The 21-year-old scored one goal, provided two assists, and delivered the corner from which Liverpool won a penalty. It was a superb showing from a player who is reinventing the right-back role before our very eyes.
There was once a time when right-back was the most unfashionable position on the pitch. Jamie Carragher memorably mocked his Sky Sports colleague by declaring that “no one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville,” but there was logic behind the jibe. In years gone by, right-backs tended to be converted wingers or center-halves – including Neville himself.
That began to change in the 1990s, when full-backs increasingly took on greater attacking responsibilities. Forward-thinking right-backs had existed before then, from Djalma Santos and Carlos Alberto to Wim Suurbier and Manfred Kaltz, but it was the final decade of the last century that brought about widespread change.
Attacking right-backs has become commonplace since then. Cafu’s lung-busting, overlapping runs were a sight to behold in Serie A and for the Brazil national team. Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta did similar for France and Italy, respectively. Dani Alves and Philipp Lahm then emerged in the 2000s, players who were so technically gifted that they were at times deployed in midfield.
Nevertheless, we have not seen a right-back like Alexander-Arnold before. The 21-year-old is Liverpool’s principal playmaker. The likes of Alves, Cafu and Lahm fashioned goalscoring opportunities for their teammates, but none were their team’s chief source of creativity.
Alexander-Arnold broke the Premier League assists record for a defender last term, directly setting up 12 goals for his Liverpool teammates. He has already racked up eight assists in 18 appearances in 2019/20, which means he is well on course to shatter last season’s tally. Only Kevin De Bruyne has registered more since the start of the campaign.
Alexander-Arnold is certainly capable of overlapping Mohamed Salah on the right wing. Indeed, his second assist against Leicester came from an advanced position. But he does not interpret the right-back role like Cafu or Zambrotta, continually bombing down the flank and getting to the byline.
Many of the chances he creates come from deeper positions. His delivery for Roberto Firmino’s first goal on Thursday is a case in point. He is a fantastic passer, able to float balls over the top or drill them in behind. However, he does not tuck into midfield like Lahm at Bayern Munich or Kyle Walker at Manchester City. Alexander-Arnold is a unique type of right-back.
There have been tentative suggestions that Jurgen Klopp should consider re-deploying Alexander-Arnold in the center of the park, much like Pep Guardiola did with Lahm at Bayern. That would be an error.
Part of the reason for Alexander-Arnold’s success is the difficulty opponents face in shackling him. It is much harder to man-mark a right-back than an attacking midfielder. Moreover, opponents would find it easier to nullify his tremendous crossing ability were he deployed centrally.
Liverpool center-back Virgil van Dijk should arguably have won the Ballon d’Or this year. Should Alexander-Arnold maintain his current trajectory, he could be a contender for the 2020 award.
Last modified: January 22, 2020 11:40 PM UTC