Jack Hallows believes criticism of Trent Alexander-Arnold has been harsh but not entirely unjustified so far this season.
It’s easy to forget that Trent Alexander-Arnold is still only 20 years of age.
The young right-back burst onto the scene as an 18 year old in the 2016/17 season and such has been the rapid pace of his rise, just 18 months after making his full Premier League debut he was on his way to the World Cup having just started in a Champions League final.
The Merseyside born and bred prodigy was superb at times last season, pocketing some of the best forwards in the world during the Reds European campaign including Leroy Sane of Manchester City and even keeping Cristiano Ronaldo as quiet as he’s ever been on the biggest stage in European football.
As you’d expect of such a young player, there were dips at times – and costly ones – with the way that Marcus Rashford bullied and outsmarted him constantly at Old Trafford perhaps the most damning.
These were however, rare in the bigger picture and overall Trent was generally seen as one of the club’s stand out performers over last campaign with pundits praising his delivery into the box and set piece ability in particular.
This season however there’s been an evident drop off in the Englishman’s performances on the whole.
The accuracy of his final ball has only just started to return and defensively he’s looked incredibly susceptible with questions being raised over his positioning and awareness.
Jamie Carragher, a man who knows a thing or two about playing in defence for Liverpool, cited the 20-year olds’ inability to spot danger quickly enough following the Reds 1-1 draw with Arsenal.
The no.66 was caught with his pants down for Alexandre Lacazette’s equaliser, choosing to throw his hand up towards the linesman in hope that the Frenchman would be flagged offside rather than attempting to tackle or block his shot.
“It’s happened quickly, the ball’s gone past him, puts his hand up, he looks for the linesman,” said Carragher.
“As soon as he can now see the linesman has not given offside, the other players are sprinting back, he has to sprint there because that is danger. He is going to be a superstar but he’s got to spot danger earlier. Not just in this situation, a lot of situations I watch him play.”
Arsenal seemed to make a real point of targeting the Reds right side of defence when Klopp’s men travelled to the Emirates last weekend, Aubameyang in particular wreaking havoc in the first half, following a trend that certainly developed as early as midway through last season.
With Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson solid on the left, opposition sides looked to target last season’s right sided pairing of Trent and Lovren as their best hope of getting through the Reds much improved backline.
It certainly had mixed results.
As mentioned before City found no joy in this tactic during the Champions League with Leroy Sane rendered ineffective while Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku combined to exploit the right side of the defence incredibly at Old Trafford.
Another stand out example was Wilfried Zaha looking to occupy that channel between Trent and Lovren when the Reds travelled to Selhurst Park last season.
Zaha is admittedly a very tough winger to play against even when on top of your game and the Ivorian schooled Alexander-Arnold with a superb display of counter attacking wing play at its best – especially in the first half.
It seems though, if you look at the players that cause Alexander-Arnold the most problems, it’s the ‘inside forward’ rather than the traditional ‘winger.’
Leroy Sane of Manchester City, when played on the left side of the attack, is fielded as a traditional left winger, looking to get past his opponent’s full back and sprint to the by-line. He’s there to get behind the defence and cut the ball back across the box with his stronger left foot.
The issue with this in an attacking sense however, is that it makes a defenders job a little easier. Stick with your man as Trent does in the above still. If he takes you on and you possess the speed to keep up with him, you’ll likely be favourite to win the tackle or force him to misplace his cross.
In short, keep yourself goal side and he has to beat you, making his job harder.
With the likes of Rashford, Zaha and now Aubameyang last weekend, they are right footed strikers who play in the inside left channel.
Their instinct in this position is not to run down the wing and hit the byline, they want to make diagonal runs from out to in, get in behind their full back and run at the centre halves. It’s similar in effect to what Liverpool’s ‘wingers’ in Salah and Mané do.
Go back and watch the first goal United scored against Liverpool at Old Trafford last season. Lukaku wins his header against Lovren and Rashford, backing his striker to do so, has already made a b-line for the space that the Croatian has now vacated to get himself behind and in on goal.
Trent doesn’t sense the danger until it’s too late and is caught too high and too wide to make an effective challenge. 1-0 United.
The penalty Zaha wins at Selhurst Park just weeks later is a similar situation.
Benteke this time wins a header over Jordan Henderson and Zaha slips straight between Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk to take a shot at goal. Okay, Loris Karius didn’t have to rugby tackle him but the way he gets into the position is the same principle.
The incredible recovery pace of Joe Gomez has admittedly made this less of an issue this season and he was on hand at the Emirates to make a number of good blocks in the first half to deny Aubameyang any clear cut opportunities but Trent’s problem is still persisting.
It’s no surprise that Alexander-Arnold’s worst games this season have come against sides who possess these types of wide players who look to either run out to in or in the case of Eden Hazard at Chelsea, start almost from a midfield position and use space vacated in doing so to get in behind.
Above, you can see that Hazard has burst into the space vacated by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s attempts to track the no.10’s central movement.
The young right-back’s lack of awareness of his teammate’s position and where he’s located on the pitch means that Hazard has all the space in the world to run into and time to produce an admittedly impressive finish past Alisson.
Of course, there were other errors – Milner could’ve been more aware of Alexander-Arnold’s intentions and Henderson could’ve done better to shut down Kovacic but this just serves to highlight another instance in which our no.66 simply failed to sniff out danger quickly enough.
Now, listen, I’m not trying to bash Trent, I’m actually a big fan of the 20-year old and personally think our best defensive unit is a back five of Alisson, Trent, Gomez, Virgil and Robertson. It’s solid, has pace all across the line and the attacking ability of both Trent and Robbo is vital.
However, the fact that Liverpool’s opponents – especially those situated higher up the pecking order – are starting to turn to inside forwards who are instructed to target our right hand side is certainly no coincidence.
Carragher is right, Alexander-Arnold will improve as he matures – as I said right at the start of this piece, he’s still practically only a kid in footballing terms.
That said, he’ll need to make some serious short-term improvements soon or he risks losing his place – an option that potentially may not be the worst, giving him a moment or two out of the spotlight to regather his form.
Either way, I do back the youngster to shrug off the fatigue – he barely had a break over the summer remember – or whatever else is ailing him and be back to his best before the calendar year is out.