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There is a steady arrogance to Trent Alexander-Arnold, a poise which comes from being 23 and irreplaceable. Jurgen Klopp said he “did not know anybody who is like Trent” ahead of Liverpool’s 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace. It is difficult to identify not just peers but precursors.
His first act with a ball on the Selhurst Park pitch on Sunday was to bring it to life with an outrageous bit of skill, using his right foot to bring it into kick-up range by teasing it off his left ankle.
Alright, this was in the warm-up, but 20 years ago that would have been the slo-mo centrepiece of a Nike World Cup advert. This is a right-back, not Ronaldinho.
Socks down at almost Grealish levels, he looked every inch the mercurial talent. Instead he seems a standard bearer. He chided Joel Matip for not releasing a pass quickly enough, screamed at his captain Jordan Henderson for saluting a previous pass rather than closing down a Palace player and huffed mildly towards Alex Oxlade Chamberlain who, like every other footballer in the world, is not quite as good as the man he had replaced - Mohamed Salah.
There is an aura here, a sense that a player whose 2021 included an England snub, a traumatic league title defence and a missed Euros has emerged stronger. What makes him such a unique talent?
No one is passing quite like Alexander-Arnold. See the flighted seven-iron approach which put Diogo Jota away for Liverpool’s second in the League Cup against Arsenal last week, or the casual ball which somehow passed four baffled Chelsea players en route to Salah on January 2.
You could write romantic poetry about his one-touch passes. There was an early dink on Sunday which teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain for a shot then a sudden dig with the outside of his boot for a surprise first-time cross. He is king of the half-space, seeing gaps between full- and centre-backs like Neo in the Matrix and threading the subsequent balls like Patrick Mahomes.
Once a winger or central midfielder, Alexander-Arnold would surely still be in those positions at any other time in football history. Instead his passing precision and range has him performing similar jobs from a different part of the pitch.
There was one cross-field ball to Andrew Robertson after nine minutes which was pinged with sumptuous ease but harder to track than a dark web order. This is boy’s own stuff for anyone reared in this country, where the natural inclination when there’s a ball in a park is to spread out as wide as possible and lump it great distances, a sort of anti-rondo.
It was also Alexander-Arnold’s one-touch pass inside to Jota which got Liverpool out of a tight spot on the flank, broke the line between midfield press and defence and became their second goal a few seconds later.
A traditional attacking full-back bombs forward, overlapping the winger in an attempt to get to the byline for crosses. It was striking on Sunday how little this happened. Alexander-Arnold had plenty of opportunities to overlap but often correctly sensed play would develop on the other flank, playing like he had a Bluetooth connection with Robertson.
His passing arsenal makes areas of the pitch dangerous which usually are not, finding devilish crosses from improbably-central locations. This season he has been given freedom to come inside more by Klopp, which opens up more telling pathways and leaves him in better positions to win the back ball if it is turned over.
Missing his usual dance partner Salah on Sunday, it was primarily Henderson on switcheroo duty. He drifted out to the wing or sometimes covered as a right-back when Alexander-Arnold came inside. This flexibility with the central midfielder and a right winger makes Liverpool harder to defend against.
Curtis Jones seemed to be waiting for him during one break while three others raced behind the defence ahead of him. Jones knew the best player to make the key pass in an attacking move was his right-back. That pass when it came was blocked, but it demonstrated Alexander-Arnold’s growing role as this side’s playmaker.
This is a new secret weapon for elite teams, full-backs with the vision and delivery of imperial-phase Paul Scholes.
But can he defend?
It seems an odd stick to beat him with when he is offering so much going forward, keeping Lionel Messi and Thomas Muller company in the assist rankings. Meat Loaf, great singer, lots of fun - but can he help you with your tax return?
Alexander-Arnold was stationed as furthest man back for Liverpool’s left-sided corners, so his defending can’t be all that bad. He is ever alert to the threat of a sprinting runner, tracking Odsonne Édouard attentively when required, ignoring him wisely when he posed no threat.
If you get the wrong side of Alexander-Arnold you won’t be for long. The one occasion Édouard did get in behind promisingly in the first half he was tracked ferociously and the attack was snuffed out with little fanfare. Alexander-Arnold defended with his pace, chased his man down and subtly put his body in the way at the perfect moment.
There was also a gutsy header inside to Virgil van Dijk when Palace were pressing towards the end of the half and the pair were the last two outfield players back for Liverpool. It is not in the coaching manuals to nod a ball down to your centre-back at speed when in the vicinity of a centre-forward, but Liverpool’s right-back can read a situation and never seems afraid to make a brave choice.
Slower second half
Every moment mentioned so far was drawn from the first half, when a ponderous Palace were too narrow and playing into Alexander-Arnold’s hands. In the second half they upped their game and his got worse.
The danger in an unusual role like his is ending up as neither one thing nor the other. He was neither far back enough to repel the Palace waves nor, like the rest of his team, able to summon the calmness to take back control on the ball.
He miscontrolled one ball shortly into the second half in front of the Arthur Wait stand. He was too ornate when trying to bring down a high ball later, it went out for a throw. He was muscled off it shortly after Palace’s goal by Jeffrey Schlupp. Some aimless hoofing crept in. A general carelessness followed. Palace attacks streamed down his side.
He looked slower, untidy, tired.
A telling intervention
Then with six minutes left he intercepted a promising Tyrick Mitchell through-ball. Head up in unexpected space, about 20 yards further back from where David Beckham lobbed Neil Sullivan, Alexander-Arnold channelled the player to whom his passing has been compared.
Advancing between defenders in a different postcode was Jota. Alexander-Arnold launched a ball which landed not just in stride for his striker but disastrously out of reach for any Palace player. “Wow,” said Jamie Carragher on commentary for Sky Sports. Ruder words were heard from the stands.
Penalty decision aside, this pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/2BNdDxONpT
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) January 23, 2022
It was a sublime ball, setting his striker free from an implausible starting position. It led to an incorrect penalty award which ultimately settled the game. A bad half redeemed by one monumental contribution.
Full-backs don’t do this, stars do.