England: What is Trent Alexander-Arnold’s role and is there one?


It might have summed up Trent Alexander-Arnold’s England career that, slightly unfortunately, a precocious young right-back was responsible for Hungary’s winner on Saturday. It might, except for one minor detail: he had gone off a few minutes before his replacement, Reece James, conceded the decisive penalty for his challenge on Zsolt Nagy.

For Alexander-Arnold, a 17th international appearance resembled many of the previous 16: inconclusive but underwhelming. A phenomenon for Liverpool remains an enigma for England, one of the great advertisements for Jurgen Klopp part of the case for the prosecution for Gareth Southgate. Vinicius Junior may have emerged unchecked behind Alexander-Arnold to score the winner in the Champions League final but it was entirely uncontroversial when he was named in the team of the tournament in the most prestigious club competition of all. Meanwhile, he seems England’s fourth-choice right-back.

Alexander-Arnold can bend, whip and curl a ball like few others. On Saturday, however, there a moment when he was caught flat-footed as Nagy met a cross, reviving the theory others have sounder defensive instincts, and a broader sense of time slipping away. It added to the significance of his substitution: England have five games to go before the World Cup but he has just three and Southgate had seen enough. Alexander-Arnold will leave the squad after Tuesday’s Nations League match in Munich; his marathon season may end on the bench there.

He feels sidelined by the system, by managerial preference, by the unEnglish glut of fine right-backs, by everything. Increasingly, Southgate prefers to start with three central defenders. He cited circumstances rather than dogma, while referencing those more accustomed to the formation at club level instead of a cornerstone of Liverpool’s 4-3-3.

“It is what Reece James, it is what James Justin does,” he said. “At the moment, we’re without a recognised left-back, so we’ve got a bit of a problem with that. Obviously one of our recognised left-backs plays wing-back anyway at his club, in Ben Chilwell, and we knew with the centre-backs to try to navigate these first couple of games while Fik [Fikayo Tomori] and Marc [Guehi] are out, we probably needed to use Kyle Walker as a centre-back as well to try and do that. I think everybody that started the game is in a position on the pitch that I’ve either played regularly with us, or played regularly with their club, there was nobody in an area they shouldn’t be that comfortable with.”

Everybody, perhaps, except Alexander-Arnold. A man who redefined the role of the attacking full-back, adding playmaker to crosser, is a less natural wing-back. It can feel a little illogical but if he is more comfortable coming from deeper, if Liverpool’s tactics are sufficiently idiosyncratic that it is hard to ape them with a few training sessions with England, there were hints Southgate was trying to bring a little of Anfield to the international arena. The use of Walker was a reminder that Klopp often likes a right-sided centre-back with rare pace, whether Ibrahima Konate or Joe Gomez, to cover behind Alexander-Arnold. As the England manager mentioned pre-match, he chose a winger, in Jarrod Bowen, who can go wider to allow the Liverpudlian to come infield. Some of England’s few brighter moments stemmed from their combination on the right.

Which is not to say he resembled the Liverpool model, the 18-assist creator, the provider of piercing diagonal passes, the best crosser ever to be a Premier League defender. There was an echo of England’s past in the number on his back. While Walker wore 2, Alexander-Arnold donned the No. 7 indelibly associated with David Beckham, another deluxe crosser.

Each specialised in pinpoint deliveries from the right. The similarities may end there, however, with the former captain perhaps afforded preferential treatment for some of his international career; teams were constructed to crowbar Beckham in at times whereas Alexander-Arnold’s last three starts have come in three different positions. One was in Steven Gerrard’s old No. 4 shirt and in the midfield trio against Andorra. The experiment was aborted after 45 minutes, to some high-profile criticism.

“Why would you make the best right-back in the world a midfielder? I don’t understand that,” said Klopp. An answer, perhaps, is that Southgate recognises an extreme talent but deems others England’s three finest right-backs.

Add an element of misfortune and Alexander-Arnold feels frozen on the fringes, ruled out of Euro 2020 by injury, forced to withdraw from the March squad when, with Walker rested and first Kieran Trippier and then James hurt, an opportunity beckoned. Instead, it went Kyle Walker-Peters’ way. Now, with the full complement of right-backs available again, Germany represents his last chance for this season, but one that will probably go to another. Thursday brings the third anniversary of Alexander-Arnold’s best England performance, against Switzerland in the Nations League. He looked the future then, but the future has still never arrived. The chances are that it won’t in 2022, either.

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