As he returns from time out with injury, there has been discourse over whether Trent Alexander-Arnold is a guaranteed starter. But he is still Liverpool’s game-breaker.
Liverpool are doing a lot right this season.
Top of the league, alive in four competitions, including a trip to Wembley for the Carabao Cup final.
However, there’s still one player who deserves to be first up on the teamsheet: Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Structurally, Liverpool are a big improvement on last season.
The typical 4-3-3 can become a 4-4-2 out of possession, while periods of sustained possession can lead to the 3-box-3 shape.
Liverpool 2.0 approach games in different ways and make effective in-game adjustments.
For example, we typically see Liverpool’s centre-backs split in buildup, forming a back three with the left-back, while Alexander-Arnold moves into a central pivot role.
But against teams who commit higher numbers to the press, Liverpool can use Alisson as an extra centre-back and form a back four.
And against more player-oriented marking systems, such as Brentford‘s, Liverpool can rotate the players in each position fluidly to disrupt the opposition’s structure and find the spare player in space.
Out of possession, the Reds have also become more effective.
Their pressing trap for Aston Villa‘s Pau Torres was highly effective, creating an early corner from which they opened the scoring.
But against more complex buildup shapes, such as Brighton‘s, Liverpool have also succeeded in forcing turnovers high up the pitch by pressing in greater volume.
The first half of the season showed that Liverpool can be effective in all phases of play against a variety of opponents – something Klopp demanded in pre-season.
But there are plenty of teams out there who press well and build up effectively.
The rarest of footballing beasts is needed to reach the very top level: the game-breaker.
Alexander-Arnold’s range of passing, coupled with his reading of the game and his role in the team, have allowed him to assume this mantle.
Let’s look at that Villa game again for an example.
We’re used to seeing Trent invert into the midfield by now, but he’s just as likely to drop back out into the last line if that’s where the space is for him.
Against Villa’s aggressive press, Alexander-Arnold does so, encouraging the visitors to chase him. The Villa back line squeeze up to stay compact, opening up space in behind.
Having created this opportunity, he plays a perfect pass over the top, and Liverpool score.
These passes don’t even have to be particularly spectacular.
Against Newcastle at home, Alexander-Arnold showed for the ball despite being surrounded by black-and-white shirts.
His options appear limited, with maybe a short sideways pass on if he can squeeze through the gap.
Alexander-Arnold, however, punches a ball through the lines to Darwin Nunez…
…who ends up getting one-on-one, though the ‘keeper ultimately thwarted him.
Structurally this was Liverpool’s possession vs. Newcastle‘s press; then Alexander-Arnold got involved, broke that structure and turned the situation into a chance for Liverpool to score.
This ability to break the game open has seen Alexander-Arnold become the focal point of Liverpool’s system.
Whether it’s popping up on and bombing down the flanks, dropping between the centre-backs to play a quarterback role or moving into midfield when his team needs a goal, Alexander-Arnold has the freedom – and the burden – of dictating games for Liverpool.
In his absence, Liverpool relied on their pressing and their buildup play to outfox their opponents structurally.
No matter how good the Reds are at this – and as we’ve seen, they’re very good – this approach has a ceiling.
Alexander-Arnold’s role in the team has been playfully questioned given the rise of Bradley at right-back. The Northern Irishman’s energy, dynamism and attacking quality have powered him to several Man of the Match displays.
As a result, some have speculated that Klopp may need to be creative in order to fit Alexander-Arnold back in around Bradley.
But with his unique game-breaking quality, Alexander-Arnold has earned the right to flip the question on its head.
Nobody in this squad can replicate his impact on the game – that’s why Liverpool had to adapt in his absence.
Klopp’s real dilemma is if he can fit Bradley in around Alexander-Arnold – the most important player in his team.