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Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, and Andrea Pirlo are not typical influences for a right-back. However, it has been evident for some time that Trent Alexander-Arnold is not a typical right-back. He is more of a playmaker and a trailblazer, possessing the passing abilities of a quarterback rather than those of a traditional right-back. Although he usually starts in the defense for Liverpool, he is now listed as a midfielder when selected for England’s national team. While Alexander-Arnold used to be a puzzle that Gareth Southgate struggled to solve, he has now found a way to utilize the skills of a full-back who is quite different from Kyle Walker.
Initially, Jurgen Klopp was doubtful when Gareth Southgate experimented with Trent Alexander-Arnold as a central player in a match against Andorra two years ago. “Why would you move the best right-back in the world to a different position as a midfielder? I don’t understand that,” he stated. However, Klopp has played a role in Alexander-Arnold’s development. It may be partly due to Liverpool’s change in tactics, which began with their draw against Arsenal in April, allowing them to have two players in front of the defense to build up their attacks. In recent international matches, aside from the game against Australia, Alexander-Arnold has played as a true midfielder. The 25-year-old believes that he plays in similar areas of the field for both his club and country, but from different starting positions.
“I play as a midfielder when I go there,” he explained. “It’s beneficial for me because even though I don’t play midfield every week, I still get to be involved in central areas. The way I understand it and have been instructed to play is that when we have possession, I am a midfielder, but when we don’t, I am a right-back. So about half or 60% of the time, I am essentially playing as a midfielder, which is why people tend to see me as a central player. However, I haven’t had the chance to learn how to defend in that position yet, but it’s something I am actively studying.”
The process of learning includes studying the midfield experts, the individuals who have established the style for their teams by providing guidance and also an English teammate who serves as both a defender and midfielder.
“I believe that as someone who plays a versatile and unconventional role – I’m not sure what it’s called these days – John Stones is the obvious choice,” Alexander-Arnold expressed. “I have long been a fan of his game and I watch him closely, whether it’s through video clips or during Manchester City’s matches. I also greatly admire Rodri’s style of play. He is a crucial player for the team and often underrated, but as we’ve seen recently, when he is absent, the team is not the same. This just highlights his importance. I also study players from the past such as Busquets, Alonso, Pirlo, and Stevie G.”
Steven Gerrard is noteworthy for multiple reasons. Alexander-Arnold, who has been named the deputy for Virgil van Dijk, is on track to be the first Liverpool-born player to serve as club captain since the legendary Gerrard. However, Gerrard’s initial venture into coaching was with Liverpool’s youth teams. In his second autobiography, he commended a young player he referred to as “Trent Arnold.” Gerrard noted that Arnold has the ability to play as a holding midfielder, but also has versatility in his skillset.
Gerrard took a different path than Alexander-Arnold: he eventually settled into a defensive midfield role after primarily playing as a forward, central midfielder, or right midfielder for the past ten years. While neither player may be considered a “metronome,” they both possess the uncommon skill of being able to deliver long passes that break through the opposing defense. For Alexander-Arnold, this comes naturally, but the more challenging aspect is developing the positional awareness required of a main defensive midfielder.
“I believe that as the ball moves forward on the field, the focus shifts towards defense and preventing counterattacks,” he stated. “It requires more discipline. When I play as a right-back, there is always someone like [Wataru] Endo or Macca [Alexis Mac Allister], or Fabinho from last season, whose role is to remain in the No 6 position. This does not change.”
In my job, I have the freedom to either play behind or alongside Mo Salah, allowing me to enter the penalty box and take shots or make crosses. However, when playing as a No 6, I have a more specific role as a defensive midfielder. Along with the two centre-backs, I am responsible for preventing the ball from reaching the opponent’s striker and building from there. This is the main difference between the two positions. The rest involves understanding where to be on the field and using my instincts to anticipate and position myself correctly during the game.
Southgate has long struggled with determining the ideal position for Alexander-Arnold. The solution may not lie with traditional right-back options like Walker, Kieran Trippier, Reece James, and other players, but instead with a combination of players like Stones, Pirlo, Gerrard, and Alonso.