Gareth Southgate announced his squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers today, and there is one name missing that has caused the most debate, Liverpool right back Trent Alexander-Arnold. Knee jerk reaction seems critical of the decision, but is that really justified given performances for both club and country so far this season?
Alexander-Arnold spent last season racking up four goals and 13 assists as Liverpool surged to the Premier League title, but this season has been a different story. Right from the opening day, when Leeds United winger Jack Harrison cut inside with ease to score at Anfield, and a referee whistle later helped Alexander-Arnold avoid the ignomy of an own goal in the same game, the signs of defensive weakness have been there.
After conceding 33 goals in 38 games to seal the 2019/2020 Premier League title, an injury to center back Virgil Van Dijk has put pressure on the rest of the back four to step up, and Liverpool have already conceded 36 goals at the time of writing with nine more games left to play. Alexander-Arnold has been targeted time and again by opponents with many speculating as to how often he shows up on opposition scouts as an area to exploit defensively, while simultaneously being a threat going forward.
On an individual level, the statistics bear out the common perception that Alexander-Arnold is the weakest defensive option among his rivals for selection. WyScout statistics show Alexander-Arnold to be behind selected right backs Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid) and Reece James (Chelsea). The Liverpool fullback has won 58% of his defensive duels and 32.1% of loose ball duels, while being successful with a glaring 0% of his sliding tackles. As a direct contrast, James has won 67.4% of his defensive duels and 43% of loose ball duels, with 55% of sliding tackles being successful. In La Liga play, Trippier has won 58% of defensive duels, identical to Alexander-Arnold but has been successful with a far superior 52.1% of loose ball duels and 50% of slide tackles.
When it comes to attacking, his greatest strength, there are some subtle differences within the 3-4-3 system England have been using that have blunted the impact of Alexander-Arnold going forward. Starting with the obvious, England do not deploy a fullback and Trent fills the unfamiliar role of wide midfielder in a flat four for the Three Lions.
In Liverpool’s system, the opposition fullback is often already occupied marking right winger Mohamed Salah while Alexander-Arnold flies forward from defense, often untracked on the overlap. As the below illustration shows, the England wingers such as Mason Mount can adopt more central positions as they float between opposition lines trying to receive possession. This makes it much easier for an opposing fullback to pick up Alexander-Arnold as he is the first player to enter the attacking channel on that side.
In addition, it is more common to receive the ball standing still wide in midfield as opposed to overlapping with a full head of steam out of the back four.
In his 12 career appearances for England, Alexander-Arnold has contributed one goal (in a 3-0 friendly win over the USA) and one assist (in a 7-0 Euro 2020 qualifying win against Montenegro). It is notable that both plays came as an advancing right back in a flat four during passengers of play when the opposition fullback was already marking an England winger.
During England’s recent UEFA Nations League campaign, Alexander-Arnold did not feature on the scoresheet during England’s first three games before being benched and not featuring for the remainder of the campaign. There was some effort to incorporate him into the attack, as the 0-0 draw at Denmark saw diagonal passes out to the young star feature as a visible part of England’s game plan without success.
In addition to their superior defensive strength, James and Trippier have proved very solid in possession and are clearly England’s best options for both these qualifiers and likely the European championship tournament this coming summer.
This is not the end for Trent, he is 22 years old and John Stones, Luke Shaw as well as Jesse Lingard have all returned to this squad after absences and dips in form. But this move by Southgate is understandable and the best option at the current moment as England look to get their World Cup qualifying campaign off to a good start off the back of a disappointing Nations League performance.