Over the past few weeks, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool have been gaining not only traction in the league, but scrutinized attention over some new principles of play. That “new” principle involves the use of Trent Alexander-Arnold where all of us always knew he could excel, in central areas. I wanted to throw my hat into the mix, partially because there’s an argument to make that this is not all that new.Embed from Getty Images
Trent’s inversion into central areas can even be traced back to the start of the season. Back in October, I wrote an article around the underrated defensive ability of Alexander-Arnold, and some reasons for his lack of assists to start the season.
SEE: The multiple layers of Trent Alexander-Arnold
One of the central arguments to that article was that Trent’s deeper, often inverted role, was contributing to his lack of assists. He was no longer advancing into the same, devastating attacking areas as the past. Instead, he was playing hopeful long passes from deep.Embed from Getty Images
What is new however is the changing structure that Jürgen Klopp has implemented, and the degree to which Alexander-Arnold is now engaging in central areas. It truly is more of a 3+2 Man City-esque shape now, with Trent sitting alongside Liverpool’s deepest midfielder, and then advancing into the half-spaces rather than typical wide areas.
His single-match heatmaps no longer spike highest in the right-half-spaces, but now accumulate the most red spots in central avenues.
Within that 3+2 shape, he’s now becoming the central figurehead to progress the play up the pitch and dictate the tempo of the match. Other than Thiago, Liverpool don’t really have that type of ‘Tempo Setter’ or ‘Deep-Lying-Playmaker’ to fulfill the void in midfield. So this has been a smart way to not only get the best out of the 24-year-old’s immense quality on the ball, but to fulfill a specific need for the team.
WHY THE CHANGE?Embed from Getty Images
It’s no secret that Liverpool have been struggling this season to perform at their very best. They’ve floundered without certain personnel available, and few players have been able to achieve the heights they’ve amounted to over the past five years. Anytime a team is underperforming, their manager should be looking into the tactical implications of how they can turn their fortunes around.
Across the pond, the Reds may have noticed their new arch-rivals utilizing John Stones as a central midfielder in a 3+2 shape in-possession.
It would be lazy to say that Pep Guardiola’s innovation served as any inspiration for Liverpool’s use of Trent Alexander-Arnold in this manner. However, it’s quite possible that Pep’s innovation served as Liverpool’s inspiration to use Trent in that manner.Embed from Getty Images
There are an array of benefits to using an ‘Inverted Fullback’ like Trent. It was not all that long ago when I broke down how a Canadian Premier League club used the tactic to completely undo one of the league’s toughest defensive units, and push players into roles that suited their strengths.
SEE: Game of Numbers #16 – Riley Ferrazzo as an ‘Inverted Fullback’
Manchester City adopt this shape to intentionally compact opposition defenses, thus opening more space into the wings. Secondary to that, they overload central areas themselves by having more direct lines of passing networks for short and quick connections through the thirds.
Naturally, you would expect a similar idea to be behind Liverpool’s carbon-copy of the approach.
But Trent is an incredibly different player to John Stones. Stones carries the ball immensely well, and with his strong frame and imposing personality, is quite difficult to dispossess. Trent Alexander-Arnold is a visionary, painting beautiful pictures as he sprays passes about with his right-foot.
So if you’re Liverpool, it makes sense to get that player on the ball in central areas, where they can see more of the game, open up more corridors of space, and switch play right to left. But beyond that, we also have to remember who lies ahead. There’s a host of players – Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz to name a few – who will naturally captivate attention. Those players cause opposition sides to sit deep against Liverpool, compacting lines of space horizontally and vertically.
If you press Liverpool, they’ll always find a way around you (if not over you) through the immense speed of the likes mentioned above. So you have to sit back, wait and be patient. That means that players deeper on the field end up spending a lot of the time on the ball, completely unopposed and unchallenged. Put Trent Alexander-Arnold in a role where he’s now one of those unopposed players, and now he has more time and space to maneuver. He no longer has the touch-line acting as a barrier to his right, or wingers trying to press his every action.
Suddenly, you get one of the most dangerous deep-lying-playmakers in modern football.
BUILD-UPEmbed from Getty Images
In terms of shape, Liverpool’s build-up structure has not changed! We’ve spoken about their 3+2 build-up for several seasons in a row now…
-> Jurgen Klopp – Liverpool – Tactical Analysis (2021-22 Edition)
-> Jurgen Klopp – Liverpool – Tactical Analysis (2020-21 Edition)
That shape often positioned Trent Alexander-Arnold as the right-sided member of the three, with Andy Robertson and one central midfielder pushing on. What’s changed is the use of Trent in that central role, often times even to the left of Fabinho, which is completely novel.
With Trent capturing the attention, Virgil Van Dijk may now be afforded more room to breathe and play his own nice passes over the top.
If the full-back then perceives that it’s best to drop in between his two centre-backs, he can push them wider on the field, and allow Andy Robertson to pick up more of a natural, high and wide role down the wing.
Fabinho then might perceive those same moments, and now we get a 4+1 bowl build-up, as all the attention crowds around the 24-year-old.
This then gives the opposition a dilemma. If you crowd around the full-back, knowing you can’t give him space and time, you’re leaving other players open to hurt you. But if you don’t pick him up properly, then he’s going to pick up great positions of his own to use his long-passing expertise to perfection, and set the likes of Mohamed Salah and Darwin Núñez free.
progression to chance creationEmbed from Getty Images
As Liverpool progress up the pitch, they can achieve similar benefits to the Manchester City’s of the world, via that increased connectivity in central channels. Strikers can drop into gaps where they know the 24-year-old will find them, and then set themselves immediately free in space. Other than Thiago, tell me the Liverpool midfielder that has the wherewithal to perceive this moment to play forward and pull off this pass?
Trent is an elite level scanner, and the more you put him in central channels, the more you open the potential for his perceptions of BOTS to excel. On that note, when we shift gears into the final third, it’s natural that the half-spaces become potentially better avenues for creating chances than the wide areas that Trent found himself in as a high-flying wing-back in seasons past.
That’s a difficult argument to make, given that he’s attained double figures in assists across three of his last four Premier League campaigns. So instead of comparing him to previous seasons, I want to compare Trent to where he was in October, when all the assists dried up.
In many of those matches, it was almost like there was a line on the field that Trent could not cross. But now with the proper rest-defense in place and Alexander-Arnold himself playing more of a pivotal role again, he’s back in these kinds of areas to assist chances.
It’s clear that we’re now seeing the best out of the British defender again. He’s accumulated six of his eight Premier League assists this season in the past seven matches, elucidating just how integral this positional switch has been to his form. But again, it’s not only his performances that have improved. Since a 2-2 draw to Arsenal at the beginning of April, Liverpool have won each of their last six matches.Embed from Getty Images
Finding their feet within the new structure, they’ve even kept clean sheets in their last two matches now, a feat they hadn’t attained since the beginning of March.
All and all, this has been a fabulous change for Klopp at Liverpool, bringing out the best in one of their key players. Instead of Mohamed Salah being the main man at Liverpool, the Reds have reframed their approach and finally introduced someone who can control the tempo of matches from the centre of the pitch.Embed from Getty Images
Trent Alexander-Arnold has thrived in the role, and regardless of the inspiration, it’s been a move that has certainly paid dividends.
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