• Dom. Jul 14th, 2024

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Can Trent Alexander-Arnold thrive in England midfield role at Euro 2024?

Can Trent Alexander-Arnold thrive in England midfield role at Euro 2024?

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On the eve of the previous World Cup’s start in November 2022, Trent Alexander-Arnold was asked for a word to sum up his England career to that point.

In terms of body language more than words, his response was fascinating.


“That’s a good question,” the Liverpool full-back replied. “A word to sum…”

Another 10 seconds ticked by as he stared into the middle distance. He scrunched his face slightly, puffed out his cheeks and shook his head. In total, 25 seconds passed before ITV reporter Gabriel Clarke made it a little easier for him, asking, “What’s your feeling?”

His feeling, Alexander-Arnold said, was the same as the previous time the two of them had discussed his England career: that — at this point, he rubbed his chin — it had been “not the best football I’ve ever played, probably not the worst either, just somewhere in the middle. Not amazing, not the worst. It could be a lot better”.

But not to the level he expected? “No. Definitely not, no,” he said.

Alexander-Arnold is among the most talented among this generation of English players, but six years on from his debut as a 19-year-old, his international career remains a curiosity as he prepares to begin Euro 2024 this weekend.

England have played 79 games in that time and, due to a combination of injuries, withdrawals and fierce competition at right-back, he has appeared in just 25 of them. To put that in context, Declan Rice has won 51 caps since his first call-up in 2019 and Bukayo Saka has 33 since his first call-up in 2020.

Alexander-Arnold played just once at the 2018 World Cup (a dead rubber against Belgium at the end of the group stage), missed the previous Euros three years ago through injury and made just one appearance, as a substitute against Wales in another group finale, at that 2022 World Cup. That amounts to just 111 minutes of playing time for England in major tournaments, all of them with the pressure off.

It will be a different matter if he starts against Serbia tomorrow (Sunday) in England’s opening game of these Euros, particularly as it will be in midfield if he does. All that time on the fringes of coach Gareth Southgate’s team — and on two occasions being dropped from the squad entirely — and now he is being considered for a role centre-stage.

Jurgen Klopp was not impressed.

“Why would you make the best right-back in the world a midfielder?,” he asked. “I don’t understand that, really — as if the right-back position is not as important as the others. People who say that, I struggle to understand how you could think that.”

It was September 2021 and Klopp, then Liverpool manager, could not comprehend why England counterpart Southgate had tried Alexander-Arnold in midfield, during a World Cup qualifier against Andorra.

Alexander-Arnold played in midfield for England against Andorra in 2021 (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

The experiment lasted just 45 minutes before Alexander-Arnold reverted to right-back, with Chelsea’s Reece James given a run-out in midfield for the second half. The ploy was widely deemed to have failed. Even Alexander-Arnold admitted, “It was difficult to get on the ball for me. I found it a lot more difficult to get on the ball in those spaces.”


That was a match against one of world football’s minnows, where England had 88.1 per cent of the possession and 20 shots to the opposition’s one. Alexander-Arnold saw plenty of the ball across the 90 minutes, but he only completed 19 passes during his 45-minute audition in midfield, which was fewer than any of England’s outfield players except striker Patrick Bamford (five) in that first half. As his pass map from that game illustrates, he saw far more of the ball once on the right-hand side than he’d done in central areas.

Klopp viewed it as a mistake for two reasons: 1) it neutralised Alexander-Arnold’s threat from a technical perspective and 2) he felt his player, having barely been used by Southgate in his preferred role as an attacking right-back, had been dropped into an unfamiliar role with little warning. Even if he were to be used in midfield, Klopp said, “I would rather he was the No 6 (the deepest midfielder) than, in this case, the No 8.”

But that was then and this is now. Nearly three years on from that Wembley outing, after a season in which Alexander-Arnold was used in a “hybrid” role by Klopp (starting out at right-back but drifting into a central playmaking role when Liverpool had possession), Southgate is giving serious consideration to starting him in midfield against Serbia — perhaps in a double pivot with Rice, with Jude Bellingham deployed further forward.

Whoever Southgate chooses alongside Rice, he has said there will be an element of risk to the selection: Alexander-Arnold because he has played only a handful of games in midfield since academy days; Conor Gallagher, Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton on account of their lack of experience.

But the Alexander-Arnold option is not a sudden flight of fancy on Southgate’s part. While there have been times he has appeared unconvinced by the Liverpool player, he has also shown a determination to repurpose him as a midfielder — at times to Klopp’s chagrin, though less so in the past 12 months or so as the player’s role at club level has evolved.


Five of Alexander-Arnold’s last six starts for England have come in central midfield. In two of those, he was named man of the match. The difficulty in evaluating his performances is that those five starts have been Euros qualifiers against Malta (twice) and North Macedonia (twice) and a low-key friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Alexander-Arnold in midfield against Malta in 2023 (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Tournament group matches against Serbia and Denmark represent a distinct step up in quality, intensity and pressure. A knockout tie against France in a couple of weeks, hypothetically, would be another level entirely.

“As you know, I’ve liked the idea for a long time,” Southgate said earlier this year. “But we’re going to be trialling it when we haven’t seen it in a really high-level game. So we’ll just have to see where we can go with it.”

Midfield is not new territory for Alexander-Arnold.

Coming through the ranks at Liverpool’s academy, he was a midfielder. It was not until he was 17 that he got reinvented as a full-back — an idea conceived by his coaches and based on pragmatism, to enable him to force his way into the Anfield first-team picture sooner.

“We played him as the No 6, at the bottom of a midfield three,” former Liverpool academy coach Mike Garrity, now assistant head coach at third-division neighbours Blackpool, tells The Athletic. “He was very good there. He was quite athletic and had good football intelligence. He always wanted to be let loose; I remember him saying he felt he wasn’t affecting the game as much as he wanted. But what he always had in that position was his vision and his eye for a pass. The range of his passing was superb.”

Even after he made his first-team breakthrough as a right-back, there was still a belief among some of the coaches at Anfield — particularly Klopp’s senior assistant Pep Lijnders — that Alexander-Arnold’s long-term future would be in midfield. That began to change when he excelled at full-back to such an extent that his creativity and delivery from the right became integral to the team’s success under Klopp.

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At Liverpool, he has been encouraged to look for the killer pass from right-back, seeking out the speed of Sadio Mane (in the past), Mohamed Salah or Luis Diaz. “We always encouraged him to take risks with the ball,” Garrity says. “He would sometimes take that to extremes when he was young, but he had the vision, the range and the technical quality to make it work.”


But England, under Southgate, do not play with the same kind of spring-loaded attack. Phil Foden and Harry Kane prefer dropping deep in search of the ball than making runs that would stretch the opposition defence. It is a team with a different technical profile, which is why — quite apart from the debate about the defensive side of Alexander-Arnold’s game — Southgate has often preferred Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier or James as his right-back.

Alexander-Arnold’s ability to play those quarterback-style passes is not in doubt. Even in that match against Bosnia & Herzegovina last week, with the opposition defending so deep for much of the evening, there were some spectacular demonstrations of his passing range. One cross-field pass to Jack Grealish, in particular, was inch-perfect in its execution.

But that is just one part of a midfielder’s skill set. More important is the ability to keep things ticking over in the centre of the pitch, to be able to control and adapt to the rhythm of the game, both in and out of possession. Toni Kroos gave a perfect illustration of that for Germany against Scotland last night in the tournament’s opening game.

The great midfield playmakers of modern times — Kroos, Luka Modric, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Andrea Pirlo, Xabi Alonso — have been revered more for their football intelligence and sense of economy than for their ability to drop a 40-yard pass into a team-mate’s path.

It is something that, for all the technical advances in player development over the past decade and more, English football is yet to master. The most technically gifted midfielders the nation has produced in recent years have often ended up being used further forward, as has been the case with Foden and Bellingham. It will be fascinating to see whether 19-year-old Mainoo, whose first instincts are dynamic and creative, follows the same path.

Alexander-Arnold played in midfield for Liverpool at youth level (Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Can Alexander-Arnold emerge as England’s missing link: a player who can dictate the rhythm of a match and keep things ticking over in midfield? “I think if you went back three seasons, I would have said no,” Garrity said. “But watching over the past couple of years, I would say he has matured a lot as a footballer.

“With that role he played at Liverpool last season, he has spent a lot more time in central areas, so he knows now when to go quick and direct and when to move the ball five or 10 yards and slow the game down.”

The game against Bosnia & Herzegovina was a step forward for the Alexander-Arnold midfield experiment.

Unlike that first trial run against Andorra, he was getting on the ball and dictating play, as he has done for much of the season in that hybrid role at Liverpool. According to Opta data, he completed 90 passes, made 14 passes into the final third of the pitch and created five chances.


But he was arguably more effective in that match after moving to right-back in its final half-hour. The goal he scored, timing his run to perfection and meeting Grealish’s cross with an adroit side-foot volley, came after that switch. Walker is established in Southgate’s mind as the first-choice right-back, though; Alexander-Arnold is unlikely to play on the right unless the manager switches to a three-man central defence, with Walker moving inside.

To play him in midfield against Serbia — as opposed to Andorra, North Macedonia or Bosnia & Herzegovina — still entails a certain risk. His experience in midfield, particularly against high-class opposition, is still so limited. That hybrid role at Liverpool over the past 12 months has seen him add more to his game as a playmaker, but his first responsibility out of possession has still been to cover the right-back position rather than track runners from midfield.

Some are still not convinced. Former England captain and now Plymouth Argyle head coach Wayne Rooney told The Overlap podcast this week that he “wouldn’t have him anywhere near” central midfield. Another former Manchester United and England forward, Teddy Sheringham, agreed, saying: “I know Alexander-Arnold can pick out a pass, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of playing in midfield.”

Both of these statements were prefaced with the fulsome praise of Alexander-Arnold’s ability with the ball. Both Rooney and Sheringham said they would be happy to see him at right-back against Serbia, though Rooney seemed to contradict that by saying, “Defensively, he is all over the place. He can’t defend.”

Garrity feels the “can’t defend” talk misses the point: that Alexander-Arnold role is pushed so far forward as a right-back with Liverpool that it is inevitable he leaves space for opponents to exploit. His role as their right-back has not been to defend with the rigour of, say, Real Madrid’s Dani Carvajal.

That calculation has been built into Liverpool’s system. With England, where he has been a bit-part player to date, the system has not been designed to neutralise weaknesses in his game nor indeed to optimise his abundant strengths.

It is a curious situation. For much of the past six years, Southgate seems to have regarded Alexander-Arnold with distrust — not just of the player, but perhaps of his own managerial ability to incorporate such an unorthodox talent into what has been a fairly functional team.


Over a six-year period in which Alexander-Arnold has excelled for Liverpool at right-back, Southgate has seemed reluctant to trust him there. That is why it has been so fascinating, over the past 12 months or so, to see the England coach going further than Klopp in trying to deploy him as a pure midfielder.

Alexander-Arnold has been enthused by it.

After so long on the periphery of this England team, he feels he is ready to take centre stage at last.

(Top photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)