Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold was outstanding when employed in midfield by England in their Euro 2024 qualifier against Malta on Friday
It was the recurring theme throughout Liverpool’s ultimately disappointing campaign. From the very first Premier League weekend back in August, when Thiago Alcantara hobbled off hamstrung and both Jordan Henderson and Fabinho were way off the pace, the Reds midfield has been under the most intense scrutiny.
The fact a whopping 12 different players started a game in the engine room – and, don’t forget, on-loan Arthur Melo never got that far – underlines how Jurgen Klopp was forced to mix and match throughout the campaign in pursuit of the right blend.
Yet it was adapting the role of one player who didn’t begin a single match in the position that eventually unlocked Liverpool’s midfield during the closing months of the campaign and gave them hope of unlikely Champions League qualification until the final few days.
The tactical switch that saw Trent Alexander-Arnold become an inverted right-back and step into a central alongside Fabinho as a temporary double pivot was key to the Reds enjoying an 11-game unbeaten run, Alexander-Arnold scoring one goal and contributing seven assists during that period.
While he was often employed in midfield during his Academy years before being transformed into a playmaking right-back, Alexander-Arnold has started in the engine room only once for Klopp when a much-changed side lost 1-0 at Chelsea in a match sandwiched between both legs of the Champions League semi-final against Roma in 2018.
Nevertheless, for some observers, midfield is where the future lies for the 24-year-old. So it was with some intrigue that Alexander-Arnold started there for England in their Euro 2024 qualifier in Malta on Friday night.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time he had began a match in the central areas for his country. However, the experiment of selecting him in defensive midfield against Andorra in September 2021 was cut short after 45 minutes with Chelsea right-back Reece James – who had played in the role earlier in his career – exchanging positions with greater effect.
But there was no chance of any early termination this time, such was the Liverpool man’s outstanding contribution. England boss Gareth Southgate employed Alexander-Arnold on the right of the midfield with Henderson left and West Ham United’s Declan Rice as the number six, and the difference between the performances was like night and day, Alexander-Arnold swiftly appearing a natural in the number 10 shirt.
Yes, Malta were not even close to being as tough opposition as those he faced during the final Premier League games. That, though, would have made no difference to the weight of pass that sent Bukayo Saka scurrying clear to force the own goal for the opener, nor the blistering drive that flashed into the top corner from 20 yards for England’s second.
And it was the extra appetite that has appeared in Alexander-Arnold’s game – Southgate believes the player has been “invigorated” of late – that allowed him to win back possession and set in motion the move for a penalty won and converted by Harry Kane.
The last few months have made the Liverpool man more comfortable when receiving the ball in midfield, his body shape more natural meaning he is always on the front foot. Not that he shirked any of his admitted limited defensive responsibilities.
There had been 21 games between the two occasions Alexander-Arnold had started in midfield for England. On this evidence, the wait won’t be anywhere near as long for the next one. And it would have offered food for thought for Klopp as he ponders how best to refashion his engine room options next season.
Alexander-Arnold may now be entering the next stage of his astonishing career. Indeed, the more he features in midfield, the more he looks like he belongs.