How Trent Alexander-Arnold positional tweak helped Liverpool come back against Man City

Liverpool ended Manchester City’s 23-game winning streak at home on Saturday, becoming the first side since Everton to take points off the treble winners at the Etihad.

While the performance itself was mixed, taking a point from Pep Guardiola’s side is no mean feat and fans should be pleased with the result.

READ MORE: 4 talking points from Liverpool's 1-1 draw with Manchester City

Trent Alexander-Arnold's second-half display was particularly promising, with the vice captain key to restoring parity after City’s opener.

Curse of 12:30 Kick-Offs

Early on, it was clear to see that Jurgen Klopp’s disdain at the lunchtime kick-off was justified, as the game against the champions was not the all-encompassing blockbuster that had been billed.

Looking at Liverpool’s performance, the Reds began the game slowly, with their high press proving ineffective against City’s excellent ball progression specialists. In fact, Liverpool only had three successful high turnovers all game (Markstats), in comparison to City’s 10.

This exposed the likes of Alexis Mac Allister, as the Argentine was forced to cover huge amounts of space, a task that the midfielder has previously struggled with. While Klopp insists that the World Cup winner is capable of playing in defensive midfield if Liverpool are compact, this was not the case against City.

In terms of Liverpool’s approach on the ball, their attacking threat was surprisingly limited.

The Reds created just 0.36 xG, and only registered 38% possession. (Sofascore). For comparison, in the first half of Liverpool’s 1-0 win over City at Anfield last year, they registered 46% possession, despite playing more defensively. Given Liverpool’s revamped midfield is comprised of excellent ball players and robust athletes, it was disappointing that the trio struggled against City’s aggressive press.

Curtis Jones in particular seemed disjointed in-possession, and the Scouser was unusually lax in his own half, and unusually indecisive in the middle and final thirds. The midfielder played 22 passes in the first 45 minutes, completing 86% of those attempted (Sofascore). This is not necessarily a bad return for most players, but it was the least of any of Liverpool’s midfielders.

Given Jones’ role in midfield is to retain possession, and keep Liverpool in control, it is fair to say that his performance fell short of the standards that he had previously set in matches against Aston Villa and West Ham, for example. However, this is perhaps understandable, considering the midfielder’s lengthy absence from Premier League football.

Another reason why Liverpool struggled to play out effectively was because of Alexander-Arnold's inverted role.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Saturday, November 25, 2023: Manchester City's Erling Haaland (L) and Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold during the FA Premier League match between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC at the City of Manchester Stadium. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

During the course of the season, the vice-captain has often stepped into midfield when Liverpool have the ball, though the extent of his inversion has varied. For instance, in many of Liverpool’s most recent fixtures (Brentford and Nottingham Forest in particular), Alexander-Arnold has refrained from moving central when under great pressure, preferring to stay wider in the first phase of buildup. The full back would have freedom to move centrally in the final third, or when under less immediate pressure, but he would at least offer a degree of width. 

In the games against Bournemouth and Brighton, as well as against Man City on Saturday, Alexander-Arnold moved next to Mac Allister during the first phase of buildup. This tactic has not always been successful, as the 25-year-old has struggled at times with his buildup responsibilities when in deep midfield areas, and due to the increased pressure he has faced when central, his usual ability to create from deep has been reduced.

The vice-captain faced similar problems on Saturday, where his best creative moments in the first half came after he recovered the ball in the right back zone, before playing into the forward line from wider areas.

Alexander-Arnold's Wider Role

While Liverpool were guilty of sluggishness in the first half, their second half display was much improved.

Key to this upturn in performance was Alexander-Arnold's positioning.

Instead of moving into central areas in the first phase of buildup, the vice-captain could be seen closer to the touchline and the half-spaces. In his post-match interview for Sky Sports, the Scouser commented how he was “pretty sure that [Bernardo Silva man-marking him] was the game plan.”

Silva’s diligent defensive work posed significant problems in midfield, but the full back found solutions to this in the second half, commenting that “it was about trying to get on the ball in different ways ... I tried to pull out a little bit wider.”

Indeed, Alexander-Arnold's wider positioning in buildup afforded him more space, and allowed him to become significantly more involved in Liverpool’s attacks.

According to Opta data, for instance, in the second 45 minutes, the Liverpool number 66 attempted more than double the amount of passes in Manchester City’s half (13) than he did in the first 45 minutes (6).

As demonstrated against City, Alexander-Arnold is at his most creative, and most influential, when he finds pockets of space out wide. While some might point out that the Scouser’s goal came from a central area, his best performances this season have come in games where his inverted role has not been as strict.

After the game, Klopp himself mentioned this to Sky Sports, saying that “it helps when [Trent] can be on the right wing from time to time as well… you just have this hiding space and [he] can influence the game massively from there.”

If Liverpool can refine the role further, in order to get the best out of their vice captain both centrally and out wide, then the Reds could greatly benefit.

It is fair to say that Liverpool were far from their best on Saturday.

Manchester City dominated for large periods, and arguably had the better chances. However, a point away to City is an excellent result, and if the Reds are to compete for the title, then denying the champions maximum points at home could be an important step this season.

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