Trent Alexander-Arnold midfield experiment ends now: he symbolises England’s identity crisis

Trent Alexander-Arnold substituted -  Trent Alexander-Arnold midfield experiment ends now: he symbolises England's identity crisis
One has to question whether we'll see Trent Alexander-Arnold again in this tournament - Getty Images/RIchard Pelham

Trent Alexander-Arnold has become emblematic of this England side: full of noble intentions, but hopelessly confused in his delivery and ultimately going nowhere very quickly. The fault lies as much with the manager as the player. This natural right-back’s unease as a central midfielder was painfully evident during this grisliest of draws, begging the question why Gareth Southgate had deployed him there in the first place. He lasted only 54 minutes, a tacit acknowledgment that this experiment had backfired. Wayne Rooney’s earlier warning – that the 25-year-old was defensively all at sea and should not be “anywhere near” the middle – looked all too prescient.

If only this were the sum of England’s ills. This performance ranked among their most anaemic at a major tournament, provoking not quite despair from supporters but an unmistakable note of disdain. Their sullen resignation at the final whistle spoke volumes, with Southgate’s players heading swiftly down the tunnel while Denmark lingered on the pitch to salute their fans. When even Harry Kane, the voice of diplomacy, is claiming that everybody is falling below their normal levels, you know that this side are facing a crisis of identity.

Their shared flaw – that none of them seem yet to know what they are meant to be doing – finds its most vivid expression in Alexander-Arnold. He arrived at this European Championship with the unqualified backing of Southgate, who argued he could be “incredibly special” in a midfield role. Here he distinguished himself only as especially ineffectual. One moment early in the second half crystallised the problem, when, desperate to lift the lethargy, he drove purposefully down the middle, the ball all but glued to his feet. But when his cue came to produce the incisive pass to his left, he scuffed it behind Phil Foden, who had to check his run and go into reverse.

Southgate had seen enough, replacing him with Conor Gallagher, who offered little discernible improvement. Usually, players substituted this early have been guilty of unforgivable horrors. And yet the statistics showed that Alexander-Arnold had been one of England’s better players, creating three chances and five line-breaking passes in the final third. None of his team-mates had managed better in either department. Yes, the bar truly was this low.

Trent Alexander-Arnold
In much the same vein as his team-mates, Alexander-Arnold struggled to impose himself in the draw against Denmark - Reuters/Lee Smith

The likelihood is that Alexander-Arnold will now retreat to the margins, his international ambitions thwarted once more. It is an unfortunate outcome for one so gifted. Still behind Kyle Walker in the right-back ranks, he has endured the type of scalding baptism in midfield that could ensure he never has a look-in again. Much as Southgate slapped him on the back, trying to restore his self-belief, you could detect the frustration in his crestfallen demeanour.

Alexander-Arnold, such a vibrant and expressive presence at his finest, has seldom felt at home under Southgate. He made his senior debut at 19 but has acquired only 27 caps in the six years since, with these past two games bringing his first starts on the loftiest stage. Asked in 2022, on the eve of the Qatar World Cup, to find a word to sum up his England career, he struggled. “Not the best football I’ve ever played, probably not the worst either, just somewhere in the middle,” he shrugged. “It could be a lot better.”

This doubles as a pithy synopsis on England in the endgame of Southgate’s reign. True, his team are still in control of their group and should finish as winners. But you cannot shake the idea that they should be serving up far more nourishing fare than this. It is not just that they have the smoothest of paths to the knockout phase, against opponents ranked 21st, 32nd and 57th in the world. It is the fact that they have players who ought to be dazzling, not dawdling. Southgate has found himself blessed here with perhaps the finest individual talents in three separate European leagues, and yet he is extracting barely a fraction of their true potential. The stock of public goodwill is threatening to run dry.

Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham
Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham were both poor against Denmark in a match where England looked far less than the sum of their parts - Getty Images/Richard Sellers

You can only imagine what Jurgen Klopp, for whom Alexander-Arnold was so often luminous at Liverpool, must be thinking. In 2021, bewildered as to why Southgate had thrown his star into midfield for 45 minutes against Andorra, he asked: “Why would you make the best right-back in the world a midfielder? I don’t understand that, really – as if the right-back position is not as important as the others. People who say that, I don’t understand how you could think that.”

So, it was not as if Southgate lacked fair warning. He persisted on the road to these Euros with attempting to reinvent Alexander-Arnold as a midfielder, but the evidence was always difficult to judge. Look at the opposition on the five occasions that he was used there: Malta twice, North Macedonia twice, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia and Denmark, non-elite though they might be, have represented a sharp step up, leaving his flaws mercilessly exposed.

Trent Alexander-Arnold
Alexander-Arnold's flaws as a midfielder have been woefully exposed - PA/Bradley Collyer

Alexander-Arnold’s task here was to establish control for England and to dictate their tempo with his passing. In the end, he did neither, his vision apparently scrambled by the shift in responsibilities. While it is tempting to declare that he has failed to make the grade, the greater worry is over the Southgate masterplan, or lack of one. The abiding impression after a galling evening is that he has created a team so much less than the sum of its parts.