Gareth Southgate picks right moment to start Trent Alexander-Arnold experiment in England’s midfield

Many fans have long called for the Liverpool right-back to be deployed in the middle of the pitch, but Southgate was right to wait until a new tournament cycle

Alex Pattle
Monday 06 September 2021 13:59
<p>The Reds defender started against Andorra</p>

The Reds defender started against Andorra

Over the last two years, the calls for Trent Alexander-Arnold to be deployed in the centre of England’s midfield have been as far-reaching as one of the Liverpool defender’s pinpoint cross-field balls.

In the eyes of many fans, the 22-year-old’s vision and passing accuracy are at times almost wasted at right-back, the qualities naturally lending themselves to a more advanced, more central role.

Liverpool’s depth in the middle of the pitch in recent years has given Jurgen Klopp no reason to experiment in such a way; the German has at various points been able to rely upon the likes of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, Naby Keita, James Milner, Curtis Jones, Thiago, and most recently Harvey Elliott – and that list is not even exhaustive.

Furthermore, the effectiveness and reliability of the Reds’ front line has meant the onus on the midfielders has been reduced. There has long been a greater emphasis on quick transitions than ball retention or defence-splitting passes, which in part explains Thiago’s relative incompatibility with this side.

In any case, there has been no such competition for Liverpool’s right-back position, with Alexander-Arnold emerging as the uncontested, largely unquestioned custodian of that place in Klopp’s XI.

In essence, experimenting with Alexander-Arnold’s role and responsibilities in that kind of manner would have to be the work of a mad footballing scientist – like the one who resides in the Etihad Stadium laboratory.

In the England sphere, Gareth Southgate is certainly no mad scientist, a pragmatist who is slowly learning to take more risks but who still seems a man more likely to find his thrills in a library than a lab.

But, unlike Klopp, the Three Lions’ head coach actually has reason to conduct this kind of experiment.

England’s weakness for years has been a lack of central midfielders with the ability to retain possession and dictate the tempo of a game, or produce a lethal pass between the lines. It was apparent against Croatia in England’s 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat, just as it was this summer in the Euro 2020 final loss to Italy.

Like at Liverpool, England’s forwards have come to prove themselves as their manager’s greatest asset, therefore Southgate was able to focus on engineering supply chains to the likes of Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane at the Euros. However, with Jorginho and Marco Verratti lining up opposite the Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips in the final at Wembley, it became clear that England must now establish a plan B to wrestle back control of matches that begin to slip away from them – especially games that go beyond 90 minutes.

Alexander-Arnold in action against Andorra

This is not to say that Alexander-Arnold is a one-man solution to that problem; he may end up being no solution at all, or it may be that a specific midfield partnership between the 22-year-old and another player ends up being key. But Southgate has recognised that now is the time to see whether Alexander-Arnold’s passing abilities and vision can be harnessed to improve England where they undoubtedly need to improve.

There were some calls to deploy the defender in a central midfield role as England prepared for Euro 2020, but if Alexander-Arnold is going to be remodelled, such a transformation requires more time. With Liverpool not utilising the right-back in the middle of the pitch, Southgate could not simply begin the reshaping of this player – on an international stage, at least – with a matter of days remaining until a major competition.

The start of a new tournament cycle was always going to be the most ideal time at which to begin the Alexander-Arnold-as-a-midfielder experiment, and this month’s World Cup qualifiers – the first since the Euros – have marked that moment.

The make-up of the England squad was also going to be important. As well as the aforementioned condition of the Three Lions’ midfield, England have no shortage of right-backs vying for a starting place – conversely to the concentration of players at Liverpool. Reece James, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier are all solid options for that position, so that Alexander-Arnold can move further up and further inwards without the team feeling as if it has been weakened defensively.

As such, England’s 4-0 win against Andorra on Sunday finally saw Alexander-Arnold play – start, even – in a central midfield role, on the right of a trio that consisted of the 22-year-old, club teammate Jordan Henderson and Borussia Dortmund youngster Jude Bellingham.

Alexander-Arnold spent the best part of an hour in that position until the afternoon’s chosen right-back, James, was replaced by Jack Grealish.

Alexander-Arnold played a role in England’s fourth goal on Sunday

In those 62 minutes, Alexander-Arnold at times looked uncomfortable, highlighting that his passing and vision have understandably been developed from – and to work in – a specific spot on the pitch, rather than in the kinds of spaces he was tasked with occupying on Sunday.

The Liverpool man at times looked a little uncertain of where he should be, but his instinct or instruction to drop back and drift to the right when James bombed up the flank was sensible and something that could be built upon in future.

Grealish’s arrival in James’s place saw Alexander-Arnold revert to a role as right-back proper for the remainder of the game, allowing him to provide his usual crossing threat. He even played a key role in the fourth and final goal, the Liverpool player’s quick corner allowing Jesse Lingard to cross for Bukayo Saka to head home.

England next play Poland on Wednesday in the Three Lions’ last fixture for a month. Southgate should use the match as another chance to try out Alexander-Arnold in midfield, even if it is just for a portion of the game in Warsaw.

A 2022 World Cup win in the heat of Qatar – even in December – seems unlikely for England, but those particular conditions further emphasise the need for Southgate to find a solution to his team’s midfield conundrum.

Whether or not Alexander-Arnold holds the key, Southgate has picked the right moment to start finding out.

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