Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield is a risk – but England must give it another go

Trent Alexander-Arnold jumps to shoot
Trent Alexander-Arnold's switch to England's midfield is about bringing creativity rather than solidity to the centre of the team - AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard

The intention in selecting Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield was never so he might just do the more simple things an England midfielder does, and if there is to be no risk then there really is no point.

The relocation of one of England’s finest talents in a very good generation was all about a shift of mindset – one which said the team and their manager were prepared to take a calculated chance. The English tendency when it comes to the calibration of defensive and attacking attitudes has most often been to stay on the cautious side of the line, and this signalled an end to that.

Just 25 caps in six years has always suggested an uncertainty in the English mind – Gareth Southgate’s included – in what Alexander-Arnold might offer. A surfeit of excellent right-backs, with Kyle Walker on top of the pile, has meant the question could at times be dodged. But here it was, the last place up for grabs in this England team – injury absence aside – handed to a man as likely to create a goal, or score one, as anything else. The 26th cap of Alexander-Arnold’s career might have been his most crucial.

Trent Alexander-Arnold shapes to play long pass
Alexander-Arnold has made the second deeper-lying midfield position his own - Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

Southgate’s first tournament in 2018 was, after all, a three centre-half configuration that sat at the heart of a five-man defence. Six years on and England began Southgate’s fourth tournament as manager with a win over Serbia with just one defensive midfielder. That was Declan Rice, not even a conventional defensive midfielder in his club life at Arsenal albeit on this occasion he was his usual commanding self in the role.

Ahead of Rice was Jude Bellingham, a No 10 with the firm idea to do whatever he liked and the goalscorer who decided the game. Then came Alexander-Arnold, the third man in this midfield, best known as the most attacking right-back in the Premier League, and carving a new role as this tournament game developed. First in England’s favour and then after the break wrested somewhat from their control.

For the 69 minutes Alexander-Arnold played, he will have known that he walked a fine line. Perhaps at the back of his mind was the notion that if he made a mistake – defensive or attacking – then the focus would be upon him. In the meantime he had to learn a role different from any other he had played. He had to judge when he might burst forward and when he had to cover – which is not easy, in a team in which Bellingham roamed as the mood took him.

Nevertheless, Alexander-Arnold had some very good moments: a key interception that set up a counter-attack, the cross-field ball to Bukayo Saka, a step forward past Nemanja Gudelj that drew a foul for a free-kick that Alexander-Arnold himself claimed. As Serbia got on top of England at the start of the second half it was Alexander-Arnold who pinged a flat, lofted right-to-left diagonal out to Kieran Trippier. He had a shot on goal, too.

Sometimes Alexander-Arnold ranged wide in his orthodox right-sided position. Mostly he was deeper in the central midfield groove and on occasions he pushed up as high as Harry Kane. He was still edging his way into the role when Southgate’s anxiety about how advanced Serbia had become convinced him to change. This was not an England team that could accommodate more than one free spirit. By the time Alexander-Arnold came off he had been forced to judge his position relative to those taken up by his team-mates, and he got those delicate calls right.

Southgate would say as much later, noting that Bellingham’s role meant that Alexander-Arnold had to “cover a lot of space” which was, the England manager said, a new experience. “He showed great discipline. He showed in some moments that fantastic passing range. We are learning with him in this role. He showed some of the attributes he can bring [to it].”

Southgate’s faith had wavered by the end, spooked by an opposition that would just not go quietly. As for Alexander-Arnold, he would tell the BBC that he had spent the week with Southgate and his coaches “talking through the role and [being] guided on how they want me to execute it”.

It was a reminder that this is something new for Alexander-Arnold. There were errors although on balance there was much more that was good. This was a man who is used to his own territory, and a clear role within it. Now he was playing in the half spaces of the congested central area while not trying to invade the natural territory of Kane and Bellingham.

As for Bellingham, he would say later that Alexander-Arnold “is always positive. That really helps someone like me who wants to get on the ball all over the pitch and try to attack their back line”. The pair of them celebrated their goal together and the friendship is evident. “I look forward to having more minutes with him [Trent] and enjoying how we can develop,” Bellingham said, “[to] get used to each other’s game and seeing how we can develop our potential.”

Jude Bellingham celebrates scoring with Trent Alexander-Arnold
Alexander-Arnold celebrates with his friend Jude Bellingham after the latter's winning goal - Shutterstock

Alexander-Arnold’s role in the England team is their least clearly defined and this was a good first attempt at it. England do not have the natural playmaker of the experience of Luka Modric or Jorginho and have not done so for a while. Yet for the man who seeks to do that job, the first pass out from defence is ordinarily Rice’s anyway. The third midfielder may find Bellingham at his shoulder coming deep for the next pass. There may be moments when Kane does the same.

Alexander-Arnold was obliged to play in the spaces between others and he did so well. The very least he deserves is to do it all over again on Thursday against Denmark.