The role of Trent Alexander-Arnold has been a divisive one for as long as I can remember.
Some are adamant he should be in midfield. Why? Well, it supposedly limits his defensive responsibilities, although I’d argue those in the middle third for Liverpool are tasked with a lot more than people actually realise and the physical demands placed on them are, quite frankly, ridiculous.
You then have those who believe a midfield position would suit the No. 66. It would free him up to act as the primary playmaker for the Reds from much more central areas. And that can only be a positive, can’t it?
For a while, I was dead against it.
For starters, he’s nowhere near as bad defensively as people will have you make out and a large part of his role is tied to risk, so he’s always going to look a little exposed during transitional moments. The creative argument was a strong one but he was already one of the best creators in the league from right-back. There were no guarantees that he would be able to scale the output if his role was tweaked. Because it wouldn’t just be Alexander-Arnold’s role changing, the entire team would have to be reworked to balance things out.
At one stage, he was averaging 12 assists per season in the Premier League. Why would you risk losing that with an unnecessary positional change?
But Jurgen Klopp did eventually give in and change the England international’s role by using him as an inverted full-back towards the end of the 2022/23 campaign. It allowed the 25-year-old to operate as part of a double pivot even though he started the game as a right-back. With the right-sided centre-back covering the wide areas, the space left by the No. 66 was covered and it allowed him to get more involved in the build-up.
The hybrid role felt like a win for everyone and Liverpool’s title challenge this season is linked to this tactic. Alexander-Arnold was a natural fit for the position and it felt as though this could be both a short-term and a long-term role for the vice-captain.
And then Conor Bradley went and spoiled it all by bossing things as a more traditional right-back.
You can really see the difference between the two roles when looking at position maps, courtesy of WhoScored.
Above we have the average position map from Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over Chelsea. Bradley (No. 84) is basically more of a right-winger. To accommodate this, Joe Gomez, over at left-back, is inverting to form a double pivot with Alexis Mac Allister and these two screen the centre-backs to ensure they aren’t too isolated.
With Bradley playing his natural game on the right, both Diogo Jota and Dominik Szoboszlai were able to operate in more central areas. In the win over Mauricio Pochettino’s men, both Jota and Szoboszlai found the back of the net. Both were assisted by Bradley.
Having more of a traditional full-back there opened up space centrally for these players. With Alexander-Arnold in the team, the idea is to create space for him.
The average position map above is taken from Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Burnley on Boxing Day.
This time, Gomez is acting as more of a traditional full-back on the left and keeping the width while Alexander-Arnold inverts to partner Wataru Endo.
In this game, Harvey Elliott started on the right of midfield and it was Mohamed Salah on the right side of the attack. This puts extra emphasis on either of those two players keeping the width curing certain phases of play while Alexander-Arnold pushes into midfield.
It isn’t necessarily an issue but does it suit the playing profiles of the starters as well as it could?
For example, Luis Diaz is more an an individual and a dribbler, so he can doesn’t necessarily need a full-back overlapping on the left to be at his best. He was more of a winger at Porto, he can execute that role for the Reds. But with Mohamed Salah on the right, would it not make more sense to carve out space centrally for him? Likewise, Szoboszlai looks better in central areas rather than out wide, doesn’t he?
So for those two to have more room to operate in, a proper full-back, the sort to attack the byline and carry the ball, might be a better fit.
This isn’t reactionary either. The need for a ball carrier on the right has been apparent for a while.
There’s a reason Alexander-Arnold and Szoboszlai have taken it in terms of being creators for Liverpool this season. Simply put, both can’t thrive at the same time as one of them needs to sacrifice parts of their game.
Maybe the long-term solution is to move Alexander-Arnold into midfield and sign a traditional full-back to rival Bradley for minutes on the right. That way, everyone can play their natural games.
Bradley’s spell in the starting XI has no doubt given Liverpool much to think about.