Trent Alexander-Arnold made his professional debut in October 2016, just a few weeks after his 18th birthday, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Since breaking into the Liverpool first-team he has made the right-back position his own. The boyhood Liverpool fan is living his dream; playing week-in-week-out in a very successful Liverpool side. He is winning trophies, while simultaneously showing that he is one of the best fullbacks in world football.
He is one of the key figures in redefining what it means to be a fullback. Gone are the days where the purpose of a fullback going forward was merely to act as a decoy runner to allow space for the winger to cross, à la Gary Neville and David Beckham. Instead, Alexander-Arnold is the primary playmaker in a Jurgen Klopp side that is oozing with talent. He is a conveyor belt of assists, his passing range is as pinpoint as it is varied, and he can chip in with goals too.
Alexander-Arnold is just 23, and yet he is the third-highest assisting defender in Premier League history. Top of that list is Everton legend Leighton Baines with 53 assists, just nine ahead of Alexander-Arnold’s current haul of 44. Second on the list is the man that occupies the other fullback position in Liverpool’s team, Andy Robertson, with 48. The fact that two of the top three are currently occupying the fullback positions in Klopp’s team is no coincidence. The way the German sets up his side creates an abundance of space for his fullbacks and allows them to influence games in a way rarely seen by players in the same position in years gone by.
To add to Alexander-Arnold’s 44 assists, he also has ten league goals to his name. That is 54 goal contributions in 135 league appearances, which is outrageous from a fullback whatever system he is playing in.
Despite all of this, Alexander-Arnold has failed to cement a spot in Gareth Southgate’s England side on a regular basis. In fact, he has failed to even secure a regular place in the squad.
This begs the question: Will England ever see the best of Trent Alexander-Arnold?
Why hasn’t Alexander-Arnold cemented England spot?
While it can be argued that it is not Alexander-Arnold’s fault that England fans are yet to see the best of him, he is not blameless in the situation.
Firstly, to an extent, Gareth Southgate is a manager of first principles. The first principle of playing as a fullback, at least in Southgate’s mind, should still be defending. This is an area of Alexander-Arnold’s game that gains some criticism and this is not without substance. There is no smoke without fire and Alexander-Arnold’s complete inability to deal with the electric Gabriel Martinelli in Liverpool’s recent 2-0 win over Arsenal was the most recent scenario in which these flaws were highlighted.
The argument that Alexander-Arnold is completely incompetent as a defender is very much exaggerated, but it is a weakness in his game. You do not start every game at right-back for a Liverpool side that has won Champions Leagues and the Premier League if you cannot defend at all. The high-intensity, high-risk-high-reward nature in which Liverpool play does mean that their defensive players can be exposed to one-on-one situations and Klopp trusts his defensive players to be able to deal with that. It is not that Alexander-Arnold is incapable of doing so, but in these one-on-one defensive situations he is weaker than the likes of Virgil Van Dijk, Joel Matip, Andy Robertson, and Fabinho in Liverpool’s ranks. The other factor that applies is that England’s centre backs are not as good as Liverpool’s and, while Declan Rice is a very good defensive midfielder, there is no English player as good at sniffing out danger and fighting fires as Fabinho is for Liverpool. If Alexander-Arnold surges forward for Liverpool he does so in the knowledge that Fabinho will cover him. With England there is not this guarantee, especially given how little he has been a starter for his country.
The other major difference between the way that Liverpool and England play is intensity. While Liverpool have an incredibly talented squad, the foundation of their success is still hard-work and high-intensity. Alexander-Arnold thrives off of this in an attacking sense. His ability to pick a pass allows him to play balls in behind opposition defenders to the likes of Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah at will. International football is much slower than the Premier League and this can be a hinderance for players like Alexander-Arnold. He is, of course, very comfortable in possession but England don’t have the same mould of attacking players who play on the shoulder of the last man and whose first instinct is to run in behind. England can still benefit very much from the Liverpool number 66’s crossing ability, particularly with Harry Kane’s aerial ability, but certain features of Alexander-Arnold’s game are restricted in an England shirt.
The other obvious factor that makes things difficult for Alexander-Arnold to break into Southgate’s starting eleven is the fact that right-back is arguably the position in which England have the greatest depth. Alexander-Arnold is competing with the likes of Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Reece James, and even up-and-coming players such as Kyle Walker-Peters, Tariq Lamptey, and Valentino Livramento, to name just a few. Walker was not selected for the latest squad and Trippier is injured, but both have credit in the bank with Southgate and he knows that he can trust them. Alexander-Arnold was selected but pulled out with injury, as did James. This has presented Walker-Peters with an opportunity to show the national team’s manager what he can do and try stake a claim for a densely populated position.
As touched on, Alexander-Arnold has pulled out of the squad through injury. Unfortunately, this is not a new occurrence. He did miss Liverpool’s FA Cup victory over Nottingham Forest, but the extent of the injury is uncertain. With a vital back-end of the season to come for Liverpool, who are still in with a shout for four trophies, perhaps club has trumped country on this occasion. This may be proven wrong, but as Alexander-Arnold is Liverpool’s only senior right-back, with Neco Williams joining Fulham on loan in January, he may be protecting himself for a vital run-in.
Availability has been an issue that has been associated with Alexander-Arnold’s England career. Alexander-Arnold made his international debut in a pre-World Cup friendly in 2018 against Costa Rica, and yet he has only 16 caps to his name almost four years later. Since that first game for his country there have been 52 England fixtures. Of those 52 games, Alexander-Arnold has played 90 minutes in just six. He does have one goal and four assists to his name in that time, however the goal was in a friendly against USA in Wayne Rooney’s last international. Three of the four assists came in a 10-0 demolition of San Marino, while the other was in a 7-0 victory over Montenegro. He is yet to make a really meaningful impact for his country.
Alexander-Arnold was a member of the 2018 World Cup squad who made it to the semi-finals, before ultimately losing in extra-time to Croatia. His only appearance in the tournament came in the final group game against Belgium, in which both managers made drastic changes to their sides as qualification was already confirmed. He had also managed to edge himself into Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad after there were serious questions over whether he would sway Southgate’s mind in time, but he unfortunately succumbed to injury in a pre-tournament friendly and missed his country’s run to the final at Wembley. This must have left a bitter taste in the 23-year-old’s mouth, but he must put that disappointment behind him if he is to kickstart his England career.
Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier are far from over the hill yet in an England shirt, albeit the latter may find call-ups harder to come by now. Trippier has been a loyal servant to Southgate and England, and has been a reliable player who causes little fuss, but it does feel like his international career may be winding down. Walker is 31 and is arguably the best defensively of Southgate’s options. He can also play in a back three, as he did in the 2018 World Cup, which should be a feature of the England manager’s thinking. While the position is very much up for grabs, it does feel as though Reece James has the edge over his competitors currently. The 22-year-old Chelsea defender has six goals and seven goals in all competitions for his club this season, albeit in a wingback role, and displays a great nuance in both attacking and defending. He is another who has demonstrated versatility too, which always helps when a manager is deciding on his squad for a tournament. James has played as a conventional right-back, but is also another who has played at centre back in a back three. He has even played in central midfield, receiving much praise in doing so while on loan at Wigan Athletic for the 2018/19 season.
Due to his passing ability, there has been a school of thought that Alexander-Arnold could play in a central midfield role, and there has been plenty of clamour for this. However, despite the vastly inferior opposition, Alexander-Arnold failed to make a mark when deployed in a midfield berth in a 4-0 win over Andorra in September of last year. Whilst it would be harsh to assess Alexander-Arnold’s credentials off of one game in midfield against a team who rarely venture out of their own half, you do not get many opportunities to prove yourself at international level.
While this is a point that is certainly up for debate, it does just feel like James is currently a more rounded player than Alexander-Arnold. Of course, with so much talent at right-back, there is the possibility of one of these right-backs playing on the left for their country. Left-back is a position in which England have far less depth and Southgate has shown he is not averse to playing right-sided defenders on the left; as he has done previously with Trippier. This is again where versatility comes into play and is also likely a factor in Walker-Peters’ call up to replace the injured James and Alexander-Arnold, given he has played just as well at left-back as his favoured right-back role this season at Southampton.
Ultimately, Alexander-Arnold is a very good player and Southgate will always be levelled with some criticism if he is not able to find a place for the Liverpool man. However, reliability is so key at international level; especially given how infrequently managers get the opportunity to work with players. Therefore, being available for each international break is so important, especially when trying to establish yourself for your country. Alexander-Arnold has not provided that stability and this is undoubtedly a big factor in his lack of appearances for England to date. He barely misses a game for his club, and yet he is so often unavailable when England call for his services. While this is not a question of his desire to play for his country, it is certainly a factor in Southgate’s current lack of trust in Alexander-Arnold.
If others are always available and ready to play for England and Alexander-Arnold is not then they will move ahead of him in Southgate’s thinking. There may be an element of the fullback thinking that he has gone to various England camps and not been first choice so if he is carrying a niggle then it is not worth going, but it is on Alexander-Arnold alone himself to prove himself when in an England shirt. There may be an argument that he has proved himself at club level, and he has, but this does not guarantee success in an England shirt as we have seen from so many many who have come before.
Alexander-Arnold’s England career can be whatever he wants it to be. The ball is firmly in his court to force his way into being a starter for his country.
Will he earn Southgate’s trust in time for the World Cup in Qatar in November?