If you were to list Liverpool players who have impressed in most or all of the team’s matches this season you could probably do so using the fingers on one hand. The Reds have been off in form, and both fluidity in attack and solidity in defense — alongside much of anything in midfield — have been constant concerns thus far in the 2022/23 season.
And yet one player, more than any other, has been singled out for criticism again and again in the wider media landscape.
Since his emergence in the Liverpool side as a teenager, Trent Alexander-Arnold has been lauded for his attacking talents while being denigrated as a “defender who cannot defend.”
In football, it is always easier to highlight individual lapses and mistakes than to grapple with systems, and narratives tend to prevail even if the reality is more complicated and ever-changing.
Alexander-Arnold himself has emphasized that his defensive skills have improved over time, in part because they aren’t as “natural” as his attacking prowess. Speaking to GQ, the English defender described his own efforts in training:
“Going forward, having the ball, always just felt natural – I didn’t have to think about it, it just flowed. When I was defending, I always had to think about where I needed to be, what I needed to do. It wasn’t natural. But I was still new to the position, I was still learning.
“I think, on the whole defensively, I’ve improved. But I would say like, even now, defensively and going forward, I can still improve on everything.
“We never complete football and I will never be the perfect footballer. The aim is to be as close to perfection as you can.”
Few would argue seriously that Alexander-Arnold is defending at the level he was when first breaking into the team. Indeed, Jürgen Klopp rotated the young defender out of the squad in big games early on, relying on the also-young-but-more-defensively-solid Joe Gomez against the likes of Manchester City.
Yet as Liverpool’s form this season has dipped in all positions — with even the normally solid Virgil Van Dijk making some questionable decisions, especially early on — criticism of Alexander-Arnold specifically has only increased.
The right back has had a number of truly poor games this season, but so surely have a number of his teammates. Notably in the case of criticism here, the young defender is not being criticized in relation to better games or better form in the past; instead, his overall ability is the target of criticism. One would be excused for thinking Alexander-Arnold has never played well defensively in any games or any season.
At the same time, the narrative of the Scouse fullback being strong going forward and weak in defense have been perhaps unintentionally strengthened by supporters’ tendency to emphasize his attacking contributions as “silencing the critics” while continuing to highlight defensive lapses.
We too often leave aside the fact that Alexander-Arnold plays a role rather than a position, so is not supposed to be deep in many of the moments where he’s said to be “out of position.” As such, a large chunk of this criticism should perhaps be laid at the manager’s feet.
This is not to say that Alexander-Arnold is a faultless defender; no one is. He can be too often beaten in a 1v1, and sometimes makes positional lapses that cannot be blamed on his role in the system. This season he and others have been truly woeful as more than one match has been labelled “the worst under Klopp.”
Despite this, he seems to be singled out for these lapses much more than his teammates and England compatriots playing for other sides. Following Liverpool’s win at Spurs this weekend, Gary Neville referenced his chances with England with the following analysis on Sky Sports:
“It’s a really tough one with Alexander-Arnold. His brilliance going forward is out of this world.
“But we’re talking about knockout football. Whether England win or lose in a World Cup is going to be down to moments. A mistake — concentration. In this moment in time, I can’t see how Gareth [Southgate] can go into a knockout game in a World Cup playing Trent Alexander-Arnold.
“I want this player to be the greatest right-back of all time because he’s got the ability to do that. But at times at Tottenham, he looked like he could cost Liverpool dearly.”
What’s so strange about this commentary?
Well, England international defender Eric Dier made a mistake that led directly to Mohamed Salah’s match-winning goal, directly costing his team the game.
While it’s worth noting that Neville does believe Alexander-Arnold should go to the World Cup as the “joker in the pack” for the attacking skillset he brings, it nonetheless seems strange that no other defenders seem to face the magnified criticism that Alexander-Arnold does.
To use a player chosen in the past as an example: In the ongoing discussion about this position, why has Kyle Walker, another excellent England fullback, never been meaningfully discussed in terms of penalties conceded and red cards earned? These, surely, are “lapses in concentration” that could cost a team — but despite these, his apparent skillset make him “indispensable” if injury would allow him to be a part of the side. Indeed, few of us would argue that he’s a skilled fullback who deserves to be at the World Cup even if he doesn’t fit best in a system that Southgate prefers. Indeed, we all realize that Klopp has organized Liverpool in a way that benefits Alexander-Arnold rather than asking him to adjust his skills to suit another approach.
Nonetheless, for everyone but Alexander-Arnold, their individual strengths and skills seem to be highlighted amidst a discussion of the overwhelming competitiveness of the position for their national team.
England have a number of very good footballers who happen to play the same position. Why this results in a storm of criticism for Trent Alexander-Arnold — and him alone — is mystifying.
Alexander-Arnold is not a perfect defender. Defenders are going to lose 1v1s against top players, and all defenders will suffer from lapses of concentration. Alexander-Arnold himself emphasizes how he must improve in all areas as a young player. It does seem harsh that defenders often see their mistakes or failures highlighted, while winning 1v1s or positioning well is rarely highlighted as this is seen as simply “doing their job.”
But regardless, we surely are far past the point when criticism of Trent Alexander-Arnold is at a level the young player deserves. More worryingly, it feels as though the same criticism is simply being recycled on a monthly or weekly basis, regardless of performance or result.
A lot of this criticism is allegedly in service of England sending its strongest squad to the World Cup this month, yet how can such negative journalism be said to help this cause? Surely all that repeated criticisms can do is put players under a microscope, making it harder for them to perform well.
Why, then, do we have to hear the same criticisms of him again and again in the service of engagement and continued discussion?
In this, Jürgen Klopp has perhaps said it best. Asked to respond to Southgate’s relatively unprecedented criticism of Alexander-Arnold last month, the defender’s head coach emphasized the stakes involved in such negative press soundbites:
“Do you really want to open this box [in getting a comment on Alexander-Arnold]? I mean it.
“You’re an English journalist, and we can now discuss selections, whatever, until the World Cup starts, it’s one of the reasons why you make massive stories of these kind of things, why the team cannot prepare properly. If you ask me for my honest opinion, it will create headlines, that’s clear.
“You want that? It helps Germany, maybe, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t help England. I don’t know why we do that.
“It’s a situation — a manager picks a player or not, which I would decide, obviously, differently but I’m not in charge of this team and that’s the way it is. If you want to discuss it, I have a lot of things to say, but I’m really not sure it makes sense. We are fine here because it’s completely different. Obviously I see him differently, that’s clear.
“There are stories out there all the time, people talk about him saying he’s not a good defender, that’s not true, he’s a good defender. He doesn’t defend always good, that’s true as well, that’s what we’re working on, he’s a young player, he’s 23, and there’s space for improvement, definitely. But I think really we only discuss it on the level we discuss it because his offensive impact is extreme for us, it could be for each team in the world I would say.
“So from my point of view, whichever team I would coach in the moment, I would sign him because he’s exceptional. Is he always exceptional? No. But I’ve never met a player who’s always exceptional.
“So that’s it now. The rest is now Gareth’s job to find a team. England are obviously blessed with a lot of really, really talented players in a similar position and it’s difficult to line them all up together.
“In this specific case it could work because Reece James can play in a three at the back, he did that for Chelsea pretty well. It’ll be interesting to see how they could interchange position, it depends on how you play with three at the back, if you keep them deep then it’s a different story but if you want them to be involved in offensive situations then Reece James, even as a centre-back, would be involved in that. All these kinds of stuff, it’s tactical stuff, not too interesting.
“But again, it’s Gareth’s decision. He made a decision, again, all I can really say is I see it differently, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong.
“I just see him every day and for Trent now that’s the most important thing, he came back, he was not in a party mood, he accepts the decision of the manager as well because he understands football pretty well, he’s an extremely smart boy, and did everything right. As a player you can never offer more than what you can offer, then in football there’s one guy who decides if that’s enough or not and that’s the manager. Here [at Liverpool] more often than not it is a case he’s picked, for England obviously not.”
Perhaps it’s time we all gave it a rest — particularly if we have nothing new to say.