Trent Alexander-Arnold’s reinvention and the tactical move that sparked Liverpool’s revival

The England international has embraced a more influential role for the Reds, and tells Richard Jolly about the tactical adjustment which has helped lift Jurgen Klopp’s side back into the title race

Saturday 23 December 2023 15:43 GMT
Trent Alexander-Arnold has embraced his new role with Liverpool
Trent Alexander-Arnold has embraced his new role with Liverpool (Reuters)

It was the start of a revival and a reinvention. When Arsenal last visited Anfield, in April, Trent Alexander-Arnold had been an unused substitute for Liverpool’s previous match, a stalemate with Chelsea. Jurgen Klopp’s team had one point from three league games, five defeats in 12 and sat eighth in the table.

Come the rematch and Liverpool have been beaten just once in 27 top-flight games. Victory would put them top of the table at Christmas, unless Aston Villa thrash Sheffield United on Friday night to reverse a significant goal difference deficit to the Reds. If Klopp’s new team have been reshaped by the summer signings in the centre of the pitch, change began eight months ago when it was apparent that Alexander-Arnold, never a stereotypical right-back, was instead coming infield to act as a midfielder against the Gunners.

Some seven months earlier, after the 4-1 demolition by Napoli, Klopp had spoken of needing to reinvent Liverpool: when he did, it was with an idea that both borrowed from Manchester City – given John Stones’s hybrid role as defender and midfielder, allowing a team to build up with two players in front of the back three but defend with a quartet – and drew upon Alexander-Arnold’s unique talents. It was a tactic that came courtesy of two Peps: City manager Guardiola and Liverpool assistant Lijnders, who was so confident it would succeed that he volunteered to forego a year’s salary if the experiment with inverting Alexander-Arnold backfired. And if Lijnders may have had particular reason to be nervous when Arsenal went 2-0 up on Merseyside, Liverpool came back to draw and then won their next six matches.

“Initially when the manager and Pep talked to me about it, which was in the week leading up to the [Arsenal] game, it was something that I was excited about,” Alexander-Arnold recalls. “I had seen other teams doing it and then to be asked to do it when we had possession, it was something that I thought would challenge me as a footballer, as someone who likes to think about the game. I like to think that I watch a lot of football and I see different systems and different players playing and how they interpret it and what they are asked to do, but the main thing for me was to try and execute what they wanted me to do.”

As Alexander-Arnold explains, it is not merely a matter of moving his position. It has permitted Klopp to use more attack-minded midfielders, suiting the summer signing Dominik Szoboszlai, while, when he is not operating as a full-back, the right-sided central defender has to cover across towards the touchline.

“I think it is something that I have massively enjoyed, the team has adapted to it,” Alexander-Arnold says. “A lot of focus goes onto me and it is kind of painted as the system is because of me and I am the biggest change just because I shift there, but technically everyone shifts around. The back three then shifts around, you have the midfield, the two No 8s then push up, the wingers kind of drop a little bit deeper, so everyone moves. It has changed and evolved over time. Some games you will see I am not in the middle as much, some games I am in there all the time. It has had a positive impact on all of us, me especially.”

It is an intellectual challenge as well as a test of his ability to be in two places at one time. Against Aston Villa in September, for instance, he found he was able to operate as a quarterback, using his remarkable passing range to unlock Unai Emery’s high defensive line. Against Arsenal on Saturday, against a quick, direct winger in Gabriel Martinelli – so admired at Anfield that Klopp seems the president of the Brazilian’s fan club – either he may have to spend more time in defence or actually start in midfield, if Joe Gomez plays as a right-back. But as he notes, even when he was injured in autumn, Gomez was primed to invert instead. “It is more about a system rather than who plays in there,” Alexander-Arnold says, though his own influence nevertheless renders him irreplaceable.

‘It was something that I thought would challenge me as a footballer’ (Getty)

A reunion with Arsenal is a meeting of sides who have looked for different ways to add another dimension in midfield. Mikel Arteta opted to spend £105m on Declan Rice. “I feel they have gone up another level,” Alexander-Arnold says. “It feels like they are winning in a different way. He has been a big part of that. I have shared the pitch with him with England and know what he offers and brings to a team. You can see it in how he plays; breaking up the play, getting the team up the pitch and a lot of the dirty work.”

Arsenal were City’s closest challengers for the title last season. They remind Alexander-Arnold of the Liverpool side who came second in 2018-19 and went one better the following year. “They are a young, exciting team who last year probably lacked experience winning, more than anything,” he says. “That’s quite similar to what we were in that season when we were nipped to it by City by one point.” Now there is another close contest at the top. Aston Villa may sit at the summit at Christmas.

Alexander-Arnold is more involved in the centre of the pitch now for Liverpool (Liverpool FC/Getty)

“It is rare for a team to come out of the blue and win the league,” Alexander-Arnold argues. “Usually you can see them coming. But we have seen before that anything can happen and Villa deserve to be up there with the way they have been playing.” If Arsenal and Liverpool have more pedigree to challenge City, Saturday’s opponents have reasons to look back at their last meeting. For Liverpool, it was the start of something, for Arsenal the beginning of the end of their title challenge, the first of a four-match spell that produced just three points. “They will have learned from the games when they dropped points at the end of last season,” Alexander-Arnold says.

This time, they go to Anfield knowing Alexander-Arnold could pop up in midfield. But if Arsenal’s title ambitions are on the line again, this time Liverpool’s are as well.

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