It seems bizarre that we are breaking for international games whilst in the middle of a pandemic, but here we are. England play games against San Marino, Albania, and Poland in in the space of a week as they look to qualify for the World Cup.
If nothing else, an England squad gives every fan a chance to bemoan their favourite players exclusion from the squad. This round is no different. The biggest absentee from this squad is Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. The Liverpool right-back has had a poor season, without a doubt, but was still a bold call for Gareth Southgate to leave out the 2019 Ballon d’Or nominee.
If we accept a definition of World class as being the best individual in the world in their position, then Alexander-Arnold is potentially the only player in the England set-up that can claim to have been that in recent times. From the start of the in two seasons from 2018 to 2020, TAA recorded 34 goal involvements as Liverpool won honours both domestically and continentally. Attacking wise, it would certainly benefit England to have him in the squad as the three players best-placed to occupy the right side of England’s defence (Reece James, Kyle Walker, and Kieran Trippier) managed only 27 goal involvements in that time.
Liverpool’s attacking intent relies heavily on Alexander-Arnold and Robertson; the pair offered up 40% of Liverpool’s attack last season. Liverpool have been found-out somewhat this season and teams are prepared for their marauding full-backs. This is Trent’s first issue. He is now being specifically marked out of games and he has not been able to replicate his impressive attacking outlet of the past two seasons.
Trent is recording exactly the same number of average touches per game (94.6) as he did last season and more (albeit a nominal amount) in the oppositions half and the final third. It is therefore completely spot on for Gareth Southgate to say he has not been at the level he has in previous seasons as nearly every one of Trent’s attacking statistic this season is worse per game than last season. He is attempting fewer crosses per game (down to 8.1 from 10.1), with fewer of these being successful (1.5 from 2.1), with a worse completion percentage (18.1% from 21.2%).
It is not only his crossing that has dropped off. His xA is down from 0.3 to 0.2; he creates 0.2 fewer big chances per 90; and is averaging a chance created at a rate of ten minutes less than last season. If Trent Alexander-Arnold is the best attacking fullback in the world, the fact that he has dropped off massively in his attack is cause for concern.
Another issue is how the Liverpool man stacks up defensively. As we can see from the table below, he does not underperform drastically compared to his compatriots. You could possibly point to the percentage of ground duels won as a contributing factor to his omission and you could definitely make a case for it being because he struggles aerially. But as far as defensive contributions are concerned, there is nothing that stands out as being poor one way or another.
In fact, the one stat that really stands out is how much better he is at winning the ball back in the final third than his rivals. This speaks to his attacking attributes and how Liverpool try to play on the front foot. If his attacking prowess alone is not enough to earn him a place in the squad, and he is competitive defensively, why is it that he has not won the trust of the national team manager?
One potential explanation for this is the fact that, for the national team, his performances have dropped off massively from those in the league. Since the start of the 2019/20 season, there are only two statistics, both defensively and offensively that he improves in and that’s clearances per game and times dribbled past per game. This could be for a number of reasons: they may be personal issues or, more likely, they are to do with the system. Whatever, the reasons, Southgate is surely justified in dropping a player that consistently performance below himself for England.
A final issue to consider is that of versatility. Trippier can play on both flanks, Walker has often filled in in a back three, and James has played a number of times as a wing-back for Chelsea. Alexander-Arnold has only played as a wing-back for England which is one of the reasons for his poor showings for the national side. England only have 20 outfield players to pick for the European Championship and, outside of the first XI, versatility could play a part for a number of positions.
At the end of the day, it would be a huge call to drop Trent Alexander-Arnold whatever evidence there is in favour of the decision. He has been one of the best players in one of the best teams in Europe over the past two seasons. But international championships are built on hard decisions; France managed to ignore Karim Benzema in favour of Olivier Giroud en route to the 2018 World Cup; Lukas Podolsk imaged 130 German caps and picked up a World Cup winners medal despite being underwhelming at club level; and Spain reinvented the wheel to win Euro 2012 by employing a ‘false 9’ in David Silva.
Tournaments are won on bold decisions and this may well be the one that Gareth Southgate ultimately decides to take.