Trent Alexander-Arnold’s England omission by Gareth Southgate risks wasting a world-class talent

Trent Alexander-Arnold has been left out of England's squad to face Germany in their last competitive fixture before the World Cup
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England have some good players but not many who could be considered world-class in their roles. Trent Alexander-Arnold falls into this category having been an integral part of a Liverpool team that has won every trophy there is to win over the last four years.

Unfortunately he is finding it harder to beat England manager Gareth Southgate and as a result his chances of making it to the upcoming World Cup are dwindling. Dropped from the squad on Monday night, the verdict on his status was clear.

“Ultimately, we didn’t need left-back,” said Southgate. “Against Germany we struggled because of the way we played with the team so we needed Chilly on the bench and we had Kieran who I think is ahead at the moment with his all-around game.”

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England are in poor form ahead of the World Cup, but does it really matter?

Kieran Trippier is a good player, a title winner at Atletico Madrid who is now impressing at Newcastle. The 32-year-old defender enjoys Southgate’s confidence and boasts an impressive array of stats of his own that prove he is capable of contributing in the attacking phase.

And yet it feels unsatisfying. The feeling seems to be that Alexander-Arnold’s defensive weaknesses are so devastating that his exceptional gifts aren’t enough to make up the deficit. Conclusion: A mixed start to the season didn’t help.

But this isn’t really about the form. Southgate’s doubts about Alexander-Arnold stem from a poor performance against Manchester United and a nightmare at Napoli. He has only had three starts for England since Euro 2020 and none of those came at right-back.

His troubles with England are a new twist on an old trope. While Glenn Hoddle couldn’t be accommodated within the straight lines of a midfield quartet, Alexander-Arnold seems an unfavorable fit for Southgate in either a flat-back four or full-back position.

He introduced us to the concept of the underdog right-back.

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Gary Neville believes Gareth Southgate’s England will do well again at the World Cup

The hint of the confusion Alexander-Arnold was causing for his international came last September when he got a rare start against Andorra – in midfield. The experiment lasted half a game, leaving Alexander-Arnold confused by the position.

“It kind of went wrong,” he admitted. “Already being in there, standing in it and then trying to find space rather than going in unexpectedly and confusing the opposition and just feeling the freedom to drift in there whenever I saw fit.”

Trent Alexander-Arnold's heatmap and passing sonar for Liverpool this season

This freedom is more difficult to grant internationally, where there is always the temptation to opt for a more superficial alternative, for a ready-made fit. But the problem with the “jack of all trades” argument is that it doesn’t take the specialist into account.

Perhaps it is worth listing some of Alexander-Arnold’s numbers so that the importance of his exclusion cannot be downplayed. Only Kevin De Bruyne has provided more assists or created more chances in the Premier League since the last World Cup.

Trent Alexander-Arnold's statistics for Liverpool

The sum of Alexander-Arnold’s expected assists is actually higher than that of De Bruyne – and everyone else. He tops the rankings for successful crosses and chances from set pieces. Elements that can be considered particularly important in international football.

In this context, bemoaning Alexander-Arnold’s weaknesses deserves the same contempt as someone who focuses on Lionel Messi’s aerial prowess, or a music critic who takes the time to tell you that Jimi Hendrix was not a tuba whiz.

It is also reminiscent of the selection meeting for an England cricket tour of yesteryear, when one of the key decision-makers saw the fit of Graham Thorpe, the country’s leading batsman at the time: ‘But what does he bring to the team out of runs? ‘

Jürgen Klopp recognizes that instinctively.

Rather than trying to mold him into something he’s not, he’s assembled a team that makes the most of his strengths and uses those very specific abilities to maximum advantage. It has helped Alexander-Arnold to be the best he can be.

Encouraged to move forward, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho are there to cover for him. Nominally, Alexander-Arnold is a defender but that’s not his role in the Liverpool team. Put simply, he’s on the field to make things happen, not stop them.

That’s why he’ll thrive again in a Liverpool shirt. For this reason, there may not be a chance to prove Southgate wrong in an English game either.

Expect Alexander-Arnold to continue to thrill with his death. He’ll send in the crosses from high up on that right flank and collect the assists. He might even avoid the high-profile defensive errors that have garnered such negative attention.

But he will do so in a role that does not exist in England.

And so a nation distracts itself with talk about whether Brentford’s forward should be the backup option. It examines the relative merits of a group of mediocre goalkeepers. In the meantime, this particular footballer will likely find himself on the outside and looking inside.

A solution disguised as a problem.

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