Alexander-Arnold’s Absense Showed How Much He Was Missed

March 4, 2019

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If Catenaccio was defined by centre backs and Tiki-Taka by central midfielders and ‘False Nines,’ then the current footballing zeitgeist, whatever it may be labelled, is surely defined by full backs.

Previously overlooked by many, now they have become the most valuable commodity in the modern game. Look at the most successful team in any given league and there will be a good chance they have the best full backs.

That certainly might have been said about Liverpool over the first half of the season, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson giving Jurgen Klopp’s side another dimension in the wide areas. Alexander-Arnold, in particular, embodied what the quintessential modern full-back can offer a side.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the knee injury suffered by Alexander-Arnold in mid-January marked the start of a slump in form from Liverpool that saw them open the door for Manchester City to close the gap at the top of the Premier League table. From the chance of a seven-point lead just a few weeks ago, the Reds yesterday were leapfrogged by Manchester City.

When Alexander-Arnold was injured, alongside Joe Gomez who was also forced on to the sidelines at roughly the same time, the concern was that Liverpool’s defence would come apart at the seams. That all the progress they had made at the back over the past year would be undermined by absent personnel.

However, the biggest impact of Alexander-Arnold’s injury was not felt defensively, but from an attacking sense. In Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, Liverpool boast the most inherently potent frontline in the Premier League, maybe even in Europe, but Alexander-Arnold, more so than Robertson on the opposite flank, is integral to facilitating them.

Against Watford last week, this was blatantly on show. On his return to the starting lineup from injury, Alexander-Arnold notched a hat-trick of assists as Liverpool blew away the visitors to Anfield with an emphatic 5-0 win. All of a sudden, the Reds’ frontline, which had been stuttering in recent weeks, was firing again.

Alexander-Arnold’s role in Klopp’s side is similar to the one held by Dani Alves in Pep Guardiola’s peak years at Barcelona. The 20-year-old is a better crosser of the ball than the Brazilian, but the way he gives Liverpool a fourth attacking prong is similar. It’s not just in what Alexander-Arnold offers as an assist-maker, but in how he creates space for others.

“It’s important,” Klopp said in a recent interview, acknowledging the role that full backs play in his Liverpool grand plan. “That’s modern football. If you ask a young boy ‘what’s your favourite position?’ I don’t think a lot of boys will say ‘I want to be a full-back!’ But football changed. They became much more important. I was a full-back myself for a decent part of my career, it looked completely different to what the boys are doing but at least I know the things to do. You have to be really strong defensively, but on the other side a lot of teams clear the wings for the full-backs offensively.”

Sunday’s Merseyside derby was a tougher test for Alexander-Arnold, with Everton manager Marco Silva implementing a game plan that very deliberately focused on pushing Liverpool’s full-backs back. Even still, the 20-year-old contributed, winning seven of his nine tackles – more than any other player on the pitch. It wasn’t the contribution Alexander-Arnold surely envisaged before kick-off, but it was a contribution nonetheless.

While some have gone over the top on Liverpool’s supposed collapse, they must indeed rediscover the attacking verve that made them so difficult to play against earlier in the campaign. Despite being held to a goalless draw at Goodison Park on Sunday, the return of Alexander-Arnold will address at least some of their problems.

Alexander-Arnold has six assists for the season so far, with only Jose Holebas (six) and Robertson (eight) matching such numbers in the Premier League. But his significance to Liverpool cannot be quantified through mere numbers and figures. It was only in his absence, though, that this came to be fully appreciated.

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Author: Graham Ruthven

Graham Ruthven is a football writer and broadcaster based in Glasgow, Scotland. He was written for the New York Times, the Guardian, Eurosport, Bleacher Report, Four Four Two, The Scotsman and others. He is also a football shirt aficionado and still maintains to this day that Dennis Bergkamp didn’t mean it

Twitter @grahamruthven

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