Why Liverpool's brilliant Trent Alexander-Arnold just isn't the right man for England's midfield

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Trent Alexander-Arnold proved his quality for England once again, but also proved that he simply isn’t a natural midfielder.

Gareth Southgate’s selections in recent years have made it pretty plain that he has some doubts about Trent Alexander-Arnold, but it’s unlikely that there have been any qualms over his technique – and the way that he took his goal for England against Bosnia & Herzegovina exemplified one of his best qualities.

The coolness with which he took the ball from across his body and guided it first time into the far corner, with just a hint of curl to ensure it stayed outside of the goalkeeper’s grasp and slid inside the post, was gloriously pleasing. Throw in his electrifying pace, accurate crossing and ability to find and create space down the flank, and the lobby for his inclusion in every one of the national side’s starting elevens can point to a substantial amount of evidence to back their opinion up.

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But while his game-killing goal at St. James’ Park was graceful, elegant and gorgeous, it doesn’t diminish the equally substantive body of evidence which suggests that, for all the hypothesising that has taken place over many years now, he should not play in midfield. Alexander-Arnold is a world-class wing-back in the right set-up, but as a midfielder he simply proves that accurate passing and a fine touch is not enough.

This was the sixth time the Liverpool man has played in midfield for England, a quarter of all of his senior caps. These experimental roles have all come against less storied nations – aside from Bosnia, he has played in the centre against Malta and North Macedonia (twice each during the recent qualifying campaign) and once against Andorra. He has a couple of goals and assists to his name against such minnows, and has generally played in tidy, faultless fashion. But while he has made no glaring mistakes in midfield, he has also not demonstrated the dynamism necessary to play there for the Three Lions.

He wasn’t the only player whose performance was as flat as the playing surface in the first half on Monday evening, but for all that he was persistently involved in play – he ended up with 121 touches, more than anybody else on the pitch – he also failed to actually influence it. Initially played as a deep-lying defensive midfielder behind Conor Gallagher, he seldom got forward, almost never broke the Bosnian lines and created next to nothing.

He passed the ball around accurately enough (although he did concede possession 19 times) but that misses the point – against an appreciably weaker team he wasn’t able to get England moving forward or generate momentum, he didn’t use his pace and dribbling skills to beat opposing men and get Bosnia on the back foot, and he didn’t get into spaces to support the attack. He touched the ball more than anyone else in the game but did all too little with it.

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Until late on, that is, when he was suddenly able to find more space, more freedom, to pop up in positions where Bosnia weren’t able to keep tabs on him and, eventually, to score a sumptuous goal. That is, of course, after he was moved to right wing-back following the last of Southgate’s substitutions.

In that position, Alexander-Arnold is penetrative, dangerous, creative and a huge attacking asset for his team. In midfield, he is pedestrian and while he offers a fair amount of control, he isn’t half as dynamic. That shouldn’t really be a surprise – after all, for all that he undoubtedly has the assets required to be a fine midfield player, he has spent the overwhelming majority of his career in a different position.

When in his element at right-back, he instinctively knows where to stand, where to run, and where his team-mates will go for the next ball. In midfield, he lacks that certainty and vision. It’s entirely understandable, of course, but there is a perfectly sound reason why Jürgen Klopp very rarely played him in midfield either. It simply isn’t a role he knows well enough. Given time and training, he would probably make a superb midfielder – but he isn’t there yet and he won’t be in time for Euro 2024, which is just days away.

In any case, Southgate is unlikely to give Alexander-Arnold the position for their opening match against Serbia next Sunday. Barring accidents and injury, Declan Rice will be the main man for England, and while his partner is unknown, impressive recent performances from Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton and the presence of Gallagher (who received fewer plaudits for his performance on Monday but was visible in advanced areas far more often) means that Alexander-Arnold is more likely to be a candidate for right-back.

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Should he play there? Well… perhaps. He’s undoubtedly the best attacking wing-back England have, but his defensive work lags behind that of Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier, albeit that the Newcastle United man is likely to stand in at left-back at first while Luke Shaw works to recover his fitness. Alexander-Arnold has always offered forward-thinking flair alongside the risk of his being caught out when the ball comes back the other way.

That’s the reason that Southgate has been cagey about selecting him over the alternatives at his disposal – not because he isn’t fully aware that Alexander-Arnold isn’t exceptional in so many ways, but because Southgate’s methods don’t account for such an aggressive player who leaves space in behind.

Maybe, before too long, England will have a new manager whose system suits Alexander-Arnold better, and he will likely be among the first names on the team sheet at that point – but until then, he is a brilliant player who simply doesn’t quite work in the ways Southgate wants and needs him too. But he is far more likely to become the player his manager wants him to be as a right-back than as a midfielder.

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