With Liverpool’s lethargic start to the season culminating in an embarrassing display in Naples, many fingers immediately pointed at the right-back.
While Trent Alexander-Arnold undoubtedly put in a tired, and frankly abject, performance at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium, he was certainly not alone in that respect.
A week later, the Reds put in a much-improved performance at home to Ajax, but yet again Alexander-Arnold’s defending was a major talking point.
It is nothing new for the 23-year-old to bear the brunt of the headlines or social media attention.
He has become the fulcrum of Liverpool’s system, with his unique skillset playing a crucial role in supplying their attack over the last five years.
As a result, Liverpool’s No. 66 typifies their high-risk, high-reward approach under Jurgen Klopp.
When they play well he is often at the heart of their success.
However, when the Reds are misfiring, as they have this season, he comes under fire for not performing the role of a more conventional right-back.
While there is no doubt Alexander-Arnold looks fatigued and his performances have dropped below his usual standards, many of his struggles this term are a symptom, rather than a cause, of Liverpool’s stuttering start.
Complacency at the back or gaps in midfield?
As the full-time whistle blew in Naples and the inquest into Liverpool’s performance began, the familiar questions about Alexander-Arnold’s defensive ability were once again circulating.
However, putting aside the Italian horror show, his numbers have not dipped defensively since last season, when he was named in the PFA Team of the Year and was part of a back four with the joint-best defensive record in the Premier League.
In fact, the right-back’s tackle success rate against dribblers is up from 39 percent in the league last season to 50 percent in the first six games of this campaign.
Alexander-Arnold’s pressure success rate is also up from 33.7 percent to 44.9 percent, with 4.15 of his 9.25 pressures per 90 resulting in the Reds regaining the ball within five seconds.
His tackles and interceptions per 90 are also relatively similar to those he posted last year, dropping slightly from 3.79 to 3.21.
Admittedly, the sample size for this season remains small, however it is clear that there has not been a significant shift in the way Alexander-Arnold defends.
What will be more alarming to those at Kirkby is the increased defensive load that he is having to shoulder as a result of issues in midfield.
This season, the number of tackles that Trent makes in the defensive third has almost doubled from 0.69 per 90 to 1.13 – his highest average in the league since 2017/18.
While the right-back has been able to rely on his midfield for cover in previous years, injuries in this position, combined with the switch to a more attacking right-sided No. 8 in Harvey Elliott, have often left him exposed and isolated.
The fact that Liverpool remain reliant on Alexander-Arnold as their primary source of chances compounds this issue.
Trent cannot deal with the increased exposure he is facing on the right-hand side, as a result of a porous midfield, while still being expected to take up positions that allow him to be at his attacking best.
However, his rusty start to the campaign has been magnified and worsened by Liverpool’s midfield malaise.
The return of Thiago against Ajax demonstrated this, with the back four immediately looking more secure.
The added control the Spaniard brings helped Liverpool to restrict the Dutch side to just three shots on target and only 0.3 xG.
Where have all the assists gone?
Perhaps more worrying for Liverpool fans, who are more interested in what Alexander-Arnold can produce going forwards than defensively, the No. 66 is yet to register an assist this season.
After racking up a career-best 18 assists last season, to take his total for the club to 58, Alexander-Arnold has so far been unable to add to his tally this year.
While assists can often be an unreliable metric, due to their reliance on other players finding the back of the net, the fact the England international is producing just 0.14 xA per 90, compared to 0.35 xA per 90 last year, is a worry.
However, this drop in output has not come as a result of a drop in individual standards.
In fact, Alexander-Arnold is completing more progressive passes per 90 than last year (10.6 compared to 8.77), more passes into the final third (8.49 compared to 7.29) and more passes into the penalty area (5.09 compared to 2.81).
Nobody in the Premier League who has played 90 minutes or more has completed as many progressive passes or passes into the penalty area as him per 90.
He is also in the top 10 in the division for passes into the final third and ranks first for the progressive distance of his passes.
It is clear that Liverpool still possess one of the most effective passers of a football in Europe.
However, whereas last season these passes were finding a well-oiled front line, this year they are feeding one that is still finding its feet as a unit.
While Mo Salah notched his third goal of the campaign against Ajax he has been largely peripheral this season.
The number of shots he takes per 90 has fallen from 4.36 in 2021/22 to just 2.83 so far this season.
It is no surprise that Jota’s return brought the best out of both Salah and Diaz against Ajax, with his runs creating more space for the pair.
Same old Trent
While Alexander-Arnold’s attacking output appears to have fallen, his passing numbers remain elite.
Much as issues in the midfield department have brought extra scrutiny on his defensive abilities, his end product is suffering during a transitionary period in which Klopp searches for his new first-choice front three.
In many ways, Klopp’s system is built around the academy graduate, with the manager’s unconventional use of his right-back often reaping massive rewards in attack while taking huge risks at the back.
As a result of this importance, Alexander-Arnold will always be an easy scapegoat when the team struggles.
In reality, however, his struggles are a symptom of the issues that have faced Klopp’s squad this season.
He has been expected to carry out his usual role while the system that facilitates this has fallen apart around him, due to injuries and poor form.
As key players like Thiago and Jota return to restore Liverpool to full strength, their right-back will likely thrive again.