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Trent Alexander-Arnold: Liverpool’s irreplaceable piece of the puzzle

He’s the Scouser in the team and Liverpool’s Mr. irreplaceable, Trent Alexander-Arnold is key to the Reds’ ambitions this season, as is who fills his shoes from time to time.

If Liverpool fans were asked to pick the club’s best player this season few would look past Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian has been in magical form notching a combined 34 goals and assists in 30 games.

Others would point to the defensive importance of Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson, who have helped the Reds keep 13 clean sheets in 25 league games.

However, if there is one player who has become virtually irreplaceable in Jurgen Klopp’s side it is his No. 66.

Trent Alexander-Arnold’s all-round play has gone up a level this season and his absence was noticeable during a sluggish first-half display against Norwich.

With Liverpool still fighting on all four fronts, few players will have a bigger say in determining the outcome of their season.

 

A new level of attacking output

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, September 15, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold celebrates scoring the 1st goal during the UEFA Champions League Group B Matchday 1 game between Liverpool FC and AC Milan at Anfield. (Pic by Paul Currie/Propaganda)

While Trent’s attacking output has been exceptional over the last three seasons, this year the fullback’s numbers have been even more impressive.

Alexander-Arnold is already only one away from his best ever assists total in a season with 15 in all competitions. He is also just four away from breaking his own record for Premier League assists by a defender in a season (13), with 13 games still to be played.

In all competitions Trent is assisting 0.53 goals per 90, more than an assist every other game, which is a considerable improvement on his previous high of 0.44 per 90 in 2018/19 – and more than doubles last season’s average of 0.21, as per FBref.

While there is no doubt he has been helped by Liverpool’s forward line being more clinical this term, the stats show that the right-back is creating more for them than ever before.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 8, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold during a pre-season friendly match between Liverpool FC and Athletic Club de Bilbao at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

*xA measures the likelihood that a given pass will become a goal assist

The West Derby native is posting 0.34 xA per 90 in all competitions this season after averaging between 0.25 and 0.28 over the last three campaigns.

In the Premier League, Trent has already racked up 8.0 xA in just 22 appearances. For context, he has totalled between 6.5 and 9.9 over the last three full seasons.

Trent is also averaging 2.77 key passes (passes that lead directly to a shot) and 9.3 progressive passes per 90, both of which outstrip his previous highs.

While Trent’s creative numbers have usually dwarfed those of his fellow fullbacks, this year they are unmatched in the entire league.

For the first time in his career, he leads the Premier League in both assists (10) and expected assists, currently edging out Salah in both metrics. He also has more progressive passes and passes into the penalty area than any other player, while only Bruno Fernandes has bettered his 64 key passes.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 30, 2021: Liverpool's Andy Robertson (L) and Trent Alexander-Arnold before the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC at Anfield. The game ended in a 2-2 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

With a combination of the natural development of his game with age and the tactical tweaks Klopp has made to Liverpool’s right-hand side this year — including the ‘flexible triangle’ — Trent has reached new levels of creativity in 2021/22 and has become more important than ever to the Reds’ attack.

“Of course, he is still in the right-back position to defend especially, then he’s a right winger, then he’s an eight, a six, a playmaker,” Klopp said back in December.

“He’s a lot of different things for us and enjoys it but it’s tough, he’s still young.” But what about those defensive critics of his?

 

Defensive liability? Don’t believe the hype

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, January 13, 2022: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold (L) and Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli during the Football League Cup Semi-Final 1st Leg match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

While Alexander-Arnold’s defensive abilities will perhaps always remain an area of debate due to ultimately outdated ideas about a full-back’s responsibilities, the idea that he cannot defend is barely worth addressing.

Klopp even said as much last month, saying: “I really don’t like always when they mention his defending, ‘defensively he’s not that good, but he’s offensively better.’”

There is no doubt that defending is not his strongest attribute, neither is it his primary role in the side, and yet he is an integral part of a back four that has kept the second most clean sheets in the league to date (13).

Despite his positioning being questioned, he has also demonstrated the intelligence necessary to thrive in Klopp’s high line, helping his side to catch opponents offside 100 times already this season, 40 times more than the second-best total in the league.

While Trent is often categorised as the weak link in Liverpool’s defence, in reality, his stats are comparable with those of Andy Robertson, a player perceived to be more defensively solid.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 19, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold during the FA Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur FC and Liverpool FC at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

In the Premier League this season, Trent has completed 3.87 tackles and interceptions compared to Robertson’s 2.74. Although the greater volume of Trent’s defensive actions is partly due to opponents targeting Liverpool’s right flank, the flying full-backs have an identical 40 percent tackle success rate when facing dribblers.

Equally, while Robertson has made slightly more pressures per 90, 10.1 compared to 9.17, the Englishman has a superior success rate of 34.7 percent which exemplifies his importance to the Reds’ counter-pressing game.

Alexander-Arnold’s defending is already at the level required for the role he is asked to perform in one of the best teams in Europe and at 23 there is significant scope for it to improve.

 

Replacing the irreplaceable

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, November 20, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp (L) celebrates with Trent Alexander-Arnold after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 4-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Trent’s performances this year have not only reinforced his importance to Liverpool but have made him one of the most potent playmakers in the league.

The issue that Klopp must face as we enter the closing months of the season fighting on four fronts is how to replace him when he is inevitably rested. With Liverpool playing three games a week, they must find a way to rotate their biggest creative weapon.

In many ways, Alexander-Arnold is Klopp’s most unique and most irreplaceable player. Other key players like Alisson and Van Dijk have natural deputies who have starred this season. Even the absence of Salah and Sadio Mane was softened by the form of Diogo Jota and the arrival of Luis Diaz.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, April 10, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold (L) celebrates with team-mate James Milner after scoring the winning second goal during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

But with Neco Williams departing in January and Conor Bradley still hugely inexperienced, Trent has no obvious replacement, let alone one who can replicate his output.

Both James Milner and Joe Gomez have deputised in the past, although neither are natural fits for the role. Few in the Liverpool squad know the roles and responsibilities of the right-hand side better than Jordan Henderson and the skipper undoubtedly has some of the attributes required to step up to the task if ever needed.

However Klopp chooses to compensate for any absence, there can be little doubt that few, if any, players are as integral to Liverpool’s hopes of silverware this season as their No. 66.

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