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Is Trent Alexander-Arnold a Bad Defender?

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Liverpool’s young right back has found himself at the center of a debate...again.

Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool celebrates after scoring his team’s second goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield on July 22, 2020
Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool celebrates after scoring his team’s second goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield on July 22, 2020
Photo by Paul Ellis/Pool via Getty Images

Answer: No, he’s quite good actually.

Deeper Answer: He wasn’t always, but he certainly is now.

When a young Trent Alexander-Arnold broke into Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side early on in the manager’s reign, it was clear that the promising youngster had some glaring issues in his game, particularly in his defensive positioning. The manager agreed with these critiques, and dropped the young Scouser when his side faced Manchester City, instead rotating Joe Gomez, who himself had just broken into the center of defense, out to right back to deal with Pep Guardiola’s side’s threat.

Despite his own improvements in this area over the years, the narrative that Alexander-Arnold “can’t defend” has dogged his career, even as the defender has, well, defended quite well on the highest stages in world football.

We know, just as many of those making arguments and writing articles know, that Liverpool’s right back would walk onto any of the top six sides in the country. Yes, his attacking numbers are a large reason for his market value and why others would want him, but that the player he’s compared to most in terms of chance creation is Kevin De Bruyne does not mean that he is an atrocious defender. All this means is that he’s an incredible right back.

Alexander-Arnold hasn’t had a great 2020/21 season (though his form for the last month or so before the international break that so sparked this debate was arguably as good as any previous seasons’ form), but it’s hard to play at your peak as a defender when you’re playing next to a new set of players every week. That Liverpool were in poor form, causing each individual tactical element to look off the boil? That was the more apt talking point, perhaps.

Alexander-Arnold certainly has space for improvement, particularly when he is called upon in a 1v1 — but he’s also 22-years-old. That said, he is not liable to give up major errors defensively, and comparing his “penalties conceded in the last five seasons” record to those of other English right backs makes nice reading for Reds (Kyle Walker tops this list with three penalties conceded in the past five seasons, incidentally; he’s conceded two in this season alone).

Is he the best English right back at defensive actions? No, he’s not (though I am actively avoiding going on a tirade here about defensive statistics. No, putting in more tackles does not mean you’re a good defender, it means your team has to defend a lot or that you’re poor positionally as a defender, etc.). I’m not sure anyone was arguing that, though. He’s nowhere near terrible, he’s really very good, but he’s not the best. Yes. Any articles written with words like “mediocre defending” in them are utterly laughable, but I’m sure they get the engagement that they want.

Alexander-Arnold is not simply an attacking player who is slotted into Liverpool’s defense. The suggestion that Jordan Henderson does his defending for him, which has allowed many to make such arguments, has been undercut somewhat by the defender’s jump up in form at the same time as the captain’s extended absence through injury.

Liverpool’s right back is the best attacking right back in world football while also being very good as a defender. Alexander-Arnold is rarely at fault for goals, and certainly has played as much a part in his side’s recent run of clean sheets as the centerback pairing who have gotten more column inches and podcast minutes of late.

The problem with these wider “debates” is that people want to separate aspects of his game. He is a quite strong defender who is the best in the world at his position going forward. His chance creation and creativity is most often compared to Kevin De Bruyne, not other right backs. These two elements of his game — attacking and defending — are not true separately, you cannot decouple one from the other. He’s a whole player.

And that whole player is the best right back in England, and likely world football.

And as a final note: no, he’s not the absolute best at defending at the moment. He has, however, improved massively over the past few seasons in the spotlight (and I’m sure a large number of these arguments about defensive quality stem from his first season in the role). I’m never nervous about how well Alexander-Arnold will be able to handle [speedy, technically gifted winger on the opposition side], something that very much worried me once. I agreed with Klopp when he rested the young Alexander-Arnold against Raheem Sterling. I have since seen him come out the better of the two in meaningful matches.

At present Alexander-Arnold is the best right back in world football because he’s incredible going forward and strong in defense. Rivals and pundits can debate this as much as they want, because such debates are interesting.

What everyone should be talking about at the moment, though, is his potential: given the improvements he’s made on every side of his game over the past few seasons, there’s nothing to say he won’t be the best right back in both attack and defense by 25, either.