It’s not often that a manager chasing a game opts to bring on a substitute full back late in a game. It’s just not the “done” thing.
It’s certainly not often that this kind of decision is met with almost universal approval of fans and pundits alike.
Yet, that’s exactly what happened when Jurgen Klopp beckoned to the Liverpool bench as their World Club Cup semi-final tie with Monterrey seemed to be heading for extra time last Wednesday.
It helps of course that the fullback in question is Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool’s 21-year old Scouser, set piece master and record assister. If Monterrey had somehow been in the dark about his talents, they were certainly well in the know by full time: Alexander-Arnold had by then provided the astute pass from which Roberto Firmino scored to ward off extra time and book Liverpool’s place in the final.
It’s been that kind of year for the England right back. The Monterrey goal was the fourth time that Alexander-Arnold had helped set up a decisive late winner for Liverpool in 2019. The biggest of the lot was the quickly taken corner kick that did for Barcelona in the Champions League semi final last May, but others have been just as dramatic: The late own goal that decided April’s 2-1 win over Spurs followed Alexander-Arnold’s cross to Mohamed Salah; Firmino’s winner at Crystal Palace came after his corner kick had wreaked confusion in the Palace defence, and Sadio Mane’s 94th minute clincher at Aston Villa in November was headed home directly off his accurate delivery.
The sight of Alexander-Arnold standing over a football late in close games should send shivers down opposition spines by now. Then again, that should already be the case: Alexander-Arnold is after all Liverpool’s main source of goals. His 12 Premier League assists last season is a record for defenders (only Eden Hazard, 15, and Ryan Fraser, 14, had more). He already has another six assists to his name this season, trailing only Kevin DeBruyne (15) and Son Heung-Min (7).
A look down the list of top assisters in the Premier League shows why this is so unique: amidst all the names of forwards and attacking midfielders, Alexander-Arnold – along with teammate Andy Robertson – sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s as much a testament to Liverpool’s attacking approach as it is of Alexander-Arnold’s creative capability.
The young Liverpudlian has been a fixture in Jurgen Klopp’s team since taking over the reins from the injured Nathaniel Clyne in August 2017 and the fact that he was instantly on set piece duties was a sure portend for what was to come. He had already scored his first Liverpool goal – curling a free kick in against Hoffenheim in a Champions League qualifier – before the incident that really highlighted Klopp’s appreciation of the special qualities of the then 18-year old Trent Alexander-Arnold.
It came in a Premier League game against Burnley at Anfield when Liverpool won a free kick and new star signing Mo Salah stood over the ball ready to play it. But then came word from the bench – Klopp’s shout, more like – for the £34 million star to leave it for the young Academy graduate!
But not even that could not have foretold the creative force he has become. Set pieces aside, much of of Alexander-Arnold’s contribution has been from crosses whipped fiercely across the face of goal, but it would be wrong to pigeonhole him simply as a good crosser. He’s much more than that. Just check out Salah’s headed goal against Bournemouth two seasons ago; or, indeed, the peach of a pass he laid on for the Monterrey winner.
Through balls, lofted passes, driven cross field passes, left foot, right foot, he’s got it all, and the title-chasing Reds are thriving off it. How many recent Liverpool goals have followed Alexander-Arnold’s trademark right to left cross-field, play-switching pass? Firmino against Man City at Etihad last January. Salah against Man City at Anfield in November. Shaqiri in the Merseyside derby in December. It’s no wonder many have suggested he may eventually find a home further forward, in Liverpool’s midfield.
There’s no hint of that happening any time soon under Klopp – nor should it. Alexander-Arnold wreaks enough havoc from right back, where he can find the space to put his best attributes to use. Playing back to goal in a crowded midfield, without the orienting familiarity of that white line, requires a somewhat different skill set.
“He’s a really important part of how we play” his German manager remarked over a year ago.
I wasn’t so sure what he meant at the time. But it’s so clear for all to see now: Liverpool is simply not the same team without Trent Alexander-Arnold.