The battle to become Liverpool’s long-term right-back has evolved into a Mexican standoff with Nathaniel Clyne’s recent return from injury, reminding Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez that potential alone won’t be enough to keep them in Jurgen Klopp’s long-term plans. All three bring something slightly different to the role; Clyne offers balance and experience, Gomez athleticism and defensive solidity as part full-back, part centre-half, and Alexander-Arnold local-lad enthusiasm combined with prodigal offensive flair.
But there’s no question who Liverpool fans think should emerge as Klopp’s primary choice for the No.2 berth heading into next season. When we asked Reds supporters earlier this month to choose between the three right-backs, and the prospect of signing a new one altogether this summer, it was Alexander-Arnold who won our poll with a clear majority – 54% – voting his favour.
And after a second impressive performance against Manchester City, the Premier League’s champions in waiting, in as many appearances, it’s becoming only more obvious why Liverpool fans value the emerging academy product so highly – especially as his journey along the learning curve of what has quickly become one of modern football’s most important positions over the last decade has steadily increased in prevalence.
It wasn’t so long ago Klopp’s decision to start Alexander-Arnold in a big game came under scrutiny, after twice being sucked towards the ball at Old Trafford to afford Marcus Rashford the space to fire Manchester United to victory in the Northwest derby. The 19-year-old was culpable for the same error against Crystal Palace too, allowing Wilfried Zaha to drift into the space between him and his corresponding centre-half to lure Loris Karius into a penalty-conceding challenge.
But Manchester City, albeit never quite at their best against Liverpool, have provided the biggest tests Alexander-Arnold’s defensive qualities will face this season and the return leg of the Champions League quarter-final at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night marked the second the England U21 has passed with flying colours, especially considering his direct opposite for those 180 minutes was Leroy Sane – one of Europe’s most exciting forwards with nine goals and twelve assists in the Premier League this season.
Indeed, while the German international once again endured a frustrating evening, Alexander-Arnold’s defensive contributions in a match that was all about City trying their best to rack up a cricket score to reverse the 3-0 deficit truly stood out – registering the most tackles and interceptions of any Liverpool player, while even finding opportunity to briefly impact at the other end with one accurate cross into the box.
No doubt, Alexander-Arnold still isn’t quite the finished article, especially for Klopp’s system which implores his full-backs to get forward and provide width. Despite technical ability being widely seen as the teenager’s greatest strength, he still completed only 70% of his passes against City and suffered two unsuccessful touches – on another day, a team of City’s calibre could have punished him dearly for that sloppiness in possession.
But the real question over Alexander-Arnold since his emergence in the first team has regarded his defensive prowess, not whether he has the quality to contribute going forward, and Klopp’s willingness to throw him in at the deep end against top quality opposition has seen that side of the Liverpudlian’s game rapidly improve. Despite Gomez holding down the role for most of the first half of the season, and a full England international in Clyne returning to fitness too, the right-back slot for 2018/18 now well and truly feels like Alexander-Arnold’s to lose.