TRENT Alexander-Arnold belongs in his own, agonising category. He’s a flawed genius on the pitch, a flawed genius by design, by necessity, by the hand of his own manager’s tactical devotion, perhaps, but a flawed genius like no other.
Sporting greats usually suffer their psychological pendulum swings away from their respective arenas. They are angels on the pitch, court, track or fairway and demons elsewhere, far from the maddening crowds.
But Alexander-Arnold really is different. His imperfections are built into the Liverpool process. His speed and impeccable distribution going forward underline the genius bit. His inability to get back exposes the flaws.
The right-back goes from hero to zero and back again with every unique expedition along the flank, turning every counterattack into a variation on the old Ringo Starr joke. Is he the best passer in English football? He’s not even the best defender in the Liverpool line-up. His status and reputation are judged and determined from one side of the pitch to the other, minute by minute, veering wildly from the GOAT of quarterbacks to a defensive donkey, depending entirely on the direction of his run.
Is this fair? It’s the reality, the inevitable consequence of Alexander-Arnold’s extraordinary talent both helping and hindering Jurgen Klopp’s high-stakes strategy of risk and reward. It’s hard to recall another elite footballer’s fortunes being so inextricably linked to the success or failure of every high-pressing attack in an entrenched tactical system.
Most flawed geniuses in sport need to wander towards a bar, a brothel, a steroids injection or a dodgy tax accountant’s office to expose the duality of human nature. Alexander-Arnold only needs to wander towards his own half.
His conundrum is nothing new, of course. His unique qualities and inconsistencies have exasperated the biggest names in the business with the likes of Gary Lineker (and Klopp) wondering how the finest English footballer of his generation (according to both of them) has managed only 17 England caps. While Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate, a former centre-back himself, clearly feels that the right-back’s defensive deficiencies are self-evident and too risky in a major competition.
Both can be right, but Liverpool’s recent struggles appear to validate Southgate’s longstanding concerns even if they do not entirely vindicate him (a player of Alexander-Arnold’s astonishing vision belongs in every England squad). But the Reds’ lacklustre performances are suggesting that the lack of reward may not justify the risk.
Man City first to expose Alexander-Arnold's flaws
One game defined the Alexander-Arnold predicament and it wasn’t even played this season, it was the one that settled last season. In April, Manchester City and Liverpool contributed to a 2-2 draw and a spectacle for the annals. The right-back set up a goal and his distribution was impeccable. On three occasions, he was the furthest player forward for the Reds.
So his vacant position was targeted, mercilessly. Pep Guardiola’s boys played the burglars in "Home Alone", zeroing in on all that empty real estate, knowing they were unlikely to be disturbed or caught. For them, every counterattack was Christmas. For Alexander-Arnold, it was a tale of Dickensian contradictions. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. In a single game.
Back in April, only City’s artists boasted the creative elan to daub pretty pictures along Liverpool’s right flank. Now every half-decent opponent is bringing a paintbrush. Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr ghosted in to score the only goal in the Champions League final. Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrović bullied Alexander-Arnold at the back post and Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag actively terrorised him.
On Monday, the Red Devils had so much fun, pawing away at the right-back like a playful kitten, that they eventually took turns. Anthony Elanga knocked him around in the first-half. Marcus Rashford was switched to United’s left side in the second to let him have a go, like school bullies lining up to pummel the weedy kid.
In many, many ways, Alexander-Arnold does not deserve any of this. The 23-year-old has collected every available trophy whilst redefining the role of a right-back, reading and dictating the ebb and flow of a game from an unorthodox position.
His popularity, within the club and the broader community, is unrivalled. He’s a grounded Scouser from a council estate in West Derby – a deprived area in Liverpool where 34 per cent of children live in poverty – and commits time and money to charitable enterprises.
He’s part of the team’s captaincy group, demanding of himself and others, but still humble and admired by his peers (Mo Salah has been public in his frustration that Alexander-Arnold doesn’t get enough respect from England). Still, the right-back is arguably being undone by circumstances he cannot entirely control.
Alisson Becker said it best after the United defeat. Teams know how to exploit the Liverpool way now. The Reds are predictable. With too many injuries and not enough replacements, they are also pedestrian in possession. Their press can be stopped and bypassed. Without the potential reward of an Alexander-Arnold-inspired counterattack, there is a greater risk of an Alexander-Arnold mistake at the other end with Klopp seemingly unwilling – or unable – to balance his tactical approach with greater caution.
And Alexander-Arnold is caught in the middle, in every sense, the exposed symbol of a side that cannot decide whether to stick or twist or acknowledge that a fizzing champagne going forward looks like a flat lemonade at the back.
Alexander-Arnold is caught in the middle, in every sense, the exposed symbol of a side that cannot decide whether to stick or twist or acknowledge that a fizzing champagne going forward looks like a flat lemonade at the back.
Some sort of intervention is required because Liverpool’s bold, relentless addiction to charging at every opportunity, doubling down on the gegenpressing machine, may do more harm than good without midfield reinforcements.
And their thrilling full-back will become a whipping boy for a failing system.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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