Pep Lijnders indicated recently that Liverpool have evolved this season and the onus is on others to figure out how. Perhaps he had Trent Alexander-Arnold in mind. The team’s nominal full-back has been in fantastic form. His game is changing.
There was consternation at Anfield that the 23-year-old Alexander-Arnold was moved into midfield by England manager Gareth Southgate against Andorra in September. But that was not because it made no sense for him to be in the centre of the pitch.
The reason for Jurgen Klopp’s frustration was that there was no need to shift the player’s starting position to make that happen. Alexander-Arnold can find those zones anyway. It was a hindrance rather than a help, as the player himself has explained.
Highlights of the World Cup Group I qualifier between San Marino and England.
“That was kind of what went wrong in that first half. Standing in there and then trying to find space rather than going in there unexpectedly and confusing the opposition and just feeling the freedom to drift in there whenever I felt it was right.”
Alexander-Arnold is already a creator from midfield. He is already Liverpool’s playmaker. Kevin De Bruyne was once the most creative player in the Premier League. But the Manchester City man’s true heir is not a midfielder. Instead, he is a right-back.
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Alexander-Arnold’s expected assists total – a qualitative measure of the chances created – is 4.10 in the Premier League this season. That is not just more than any other player but a lot more. Bruno Fernandes is next on that list with 2.66. There is a gulf.
What has changed is the location from which those chances are being created. Alexander-Arnold was always an exceptional attacking full-back from the moment that he broke into the Liverpool first team. His crossing ability remains extraordinary.
Image: Many of his shot assists this season have come from angled passes from deep
Now he has so much more than that. Examine the locations from which the chances that he has created have come this season and many of them are angled balls in behind the defence from precisely the zone that De Bruyne has long done his best work.
“If you watch our games then you will see that Trent’s position has already changed,” said Klopp in September. “Not in all the games but in games where it is possible then his position changed already. So there is no need to now make him a midfield player.
“Players play everywhere, especially good players are pretty much everywhere. Trent is not very often on the left wing, that is true, but on the right wing he was already everywhere on the pitch.”
The heatmaps illustrate this adjustment year-on-year.
Image: Trent Alexander-Arnold has expanded his zone of influence this season
During the previous two seasons, Alexander-Arnold has been operating in advanced positions as might be expected given Liverpool’s dominance. This season, his influence has also extended infield. As a result, his impact on the game is increasing.
Set-piece delivery is still a core strength, of course. Alexander-Arnold has created more chances from set-piece situations than any other player in the Premier League this season. But the number of chances that he is creating from open play has increased too.
Indeed, the trend has only gone in one direction over the past five Premier League seasons. This is the story of a man who is honing his skills but it is also the tale of a team that has tailored its game to maximising Alexander-Arnold’s unique skill-set.
Image: Liverpool's attacks are focused down the right flank through Trent Alexander-Arnold
It is no surprise that Liverpool focus their attacking play down the right flank, where he is the outlet and the dangerous Mohamed Salah is usually occupying the space ahead of him. What is rarer is the responsibility for Alexander-Arnold to make things happen.
He has played eight through-balls this season – twice as many as any Liverpool midfielder. Ball circulation is the name of the game for his team-mates. When it reaches the feet of Alexander-Arnold, that is when the focus shifts to creation. He tries the pass.
“It is just playing with freedom, to be honest – especially more this season,” he explained. “We have kind of been given licence to just enjoy ourselves, go and create things, go and attack, go and cause problems for the opposition. It just feels right, to be honest.”
That can be seen in the numbers. It is not just the volume of chances that Alexander-Arnold is creating that has increased but the overall quality too. His expected assists figure per 90 minutes is around double that of the previous three seasons.
There is no one factor. This is a player who is maturing. He is creating more chances, better chances and different types of chances. But the significance of the tactical tweaks – “we adapt and use his skills absolutely” – should not be underestimated.
“Some people think that because he plays 10 yards further up the pitch he would be more influential,” added Klopp. “Being more influential than Trent Alexander-Arnold in the last I don’t know how many years he has played for me is really tricky.”
And yet, that is exactly what is now happening at Liverpool.
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