Trent Alexander-Arnold is recalling the moment six weeks ago when Jurgen Klopp mapped out how his role was about to change.
It was the day before the visit of the then Premier League leaders Arsenal to Anfield. The setting was Kirkby’s AXA Training Centre.
Liverpool were in desperate need of a lift after a torrid few weeks during which they had been dumped out of the Champions League by Real Madrid and picked up just one point out of a previous nine in the league. Klopp had a plan to revive their fortunes and it centred around his dynamic right-back.
“We were on the training pitch when the gaffer got out the tactics sheet and showed me it,” Alexander-Arnold tells The Athletic.
“Everything was normal defensively. And then with the ball he wanted me as a second No 6. The idea around it, as it was explained to me, was about improving our inside play. Controlling the centre. Getting an extra player in that area. He trusted me to be able to do what I needed to do to make it work.
“I was excited. I saw it as an opportunity. It’s a position I’d not played before. I just wanted to go out there and prove that I could do it.
“We couldn’t prep much around it, if I’m being honest. With it being the day before the game, it was only a brief session. For Arsenal specifically, it was a case of trying to learn it as we played it.”
Liverpool certainly did that as they rallied from 2-0 down to claim a point against Mikel Arteta’s side courtesy of Alexander-Arnold expertly creating a late equaliser for substitute Roberto Firmino.
Klopp’s men haven’t looked back since, with the system retained and fine-tuned on the training field. They have won seven successive league matches with Alexander-Arnold reinvigorated in his new hybrid role.
After a difficult period, the England international’s swagger has returned. His contribution to the team’s recent resurgence has been immense. In the eight games since he had that chat with Klopp at Kirkby he’s contributed a goal and six assists. Liverpool have taken 22 points out of the last 24 on offer.
“It feels good, it feels natural for me,” he smiles. “I feel like I’m able to perform there. I’m able to affect games, change games, and dictate games. I want to keep doing it. I want to help the team to keep winning games. Hopefully, we can win the last two and finish this season on a high.”
What is it about the new role that suits him so well? From the outside looking in, it feels like it gets him on the ball more often in areas where he can showcase his range of passing and really hurt opponents with his creative spark.
“Yeah, I think so,” he says. “Before taking this on, I was only ever really able to break lines on the right side of the pitch.
“I was never able to do it on the left. And if I was to play a good pass it would be a big switch and they can only be so effective.
“This position just opens up the whole pitch for me. I’m able to kind of dictate the flow of the game — where we attack, how we attack and at what pace. That’s exciting. I really like being able to do that.”
It has asked different questions of him tactically and he has embraced the challenge of making the necessary adjustments to his game.
“One example would be that I’ve always had the touchline behind me playing right-back so I haven’t had anyone sneaking up behind me, trying to press me from the blind side,” he says.
“Now I need to know what’s around me to a greater degree. Who’s close? How many touches can I have?
“100 per cent, it’s different. That’s something I’ve not had to do playing at right-back. Even though I’ve always been able to paint a picture before receiving the ball, now it’s even more important to do that.”
His stunning strike in Monday’s 3-0 victory at Leicester City – after Mohamed Salah had rolled a free kick into his path – was his first goal in the top flight since the 9-0 rout of Bournemouth in August. It was the mark of a man operating at the peak of his powers once again after the setbacks which sapped morale earlier in the campaign.
STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND WATCH THIS STRIKE FROM TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD 🤯 pic.twitter.com/gEFjyatEfI
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) May 15, 2023
“I would have scored another one like it at Palace away (in February’s 0-0 draw) if Hendo (Jordan Henderson) hadn’t got in the way!” he says.
“I feel my mindset and the way I’m going into games is still the same, but it comes down to confidence. I believe in what I’m doing again. I have full belief in it. Over the course of the season, it had been dented. Now I’m playing with that confidence and expressing myself out there.”
Alexander-Arnold has been showered with praise during this winning run but he’s keen to acknowledge that it’s been a collective effort making the new system work so effectively.
It has relied heavily on the athleticism of Ibrahima Konate to cover the vacant right-back area when Liverpool lose possession and opponents look to counter. Left-back Andy Robertson has had to limit his attacking forays and play like a third centre-half at times.
“A lot of the talk has been centred around me because mine looks like it’s the biggest positional change within that system,” he explains.
“It’s the obvious one but everyone has to play a different role. The whole of the back three, as it is when we’re in possession, have to play differently than before. Ibou coming across to cover space. It’s the same for Robbo and even Virgil (van Dijk). Ali has more responsibility in the build-up as well as we try to outnumber them. He has shown his quality in there as well.
“Others further up the pitch have more responsibility. Hendo and Curtis (Jones), who have played the majority of recent games, have been told to kind of stay away — don’t drag players into it. So we build play with a five, six including Ali. Let us build up and we will get the ball to you guys. It’s working well but it’s a full team effort both defensively and with the ball to make it work.
“Who knows whether we would have been able to go on this run without the change of system. Everyone has bought into it and we’re also performing within it as a team. Without the performances, it doesn’t work. And, potentially, without the formation change, the performances don’t come either. They go hand in hand.”
So is Alexander-Arnold still a right-back or does he now view himself as a midfielder?
“Good question!” There’s a long pause as he picks his words carefully. “I’m both. With the ball, I see myself as a midfielder. Without the ball, I see myself as a right-back.”
What about beyond this season? Will this hybrid role ultimately lead to him becoming a permanent fixture in the engine room of Klopp’s side?
“I don’t know if that’s where it’s heading but it’s an avenue it could certainly head down and that’s something I’m prepared for,” he says. “But I’m also prepared for going back to a 4-3-3 and being right-back again. That’s down to the manager to decide. Mentally, I’m ready for anything. I feel like I’m able to affect games, no matter where I play on the pitch now.”
For most of his career, Alexander-Arnold has provided the Scouse heartbeat of the Liverpool team. But he’s had company during this spirited late-season push with fellow academy graduate Curtis Jones, who scored twice against Leicester, establishing himself in Klopp’s midfield during a run of nine consecutive starts.
“Curtis has been getting a lot of praise right now and it’s fully deserved,” he says. “He has stepped up. He has shown the type of player that he is and shown the quality that he brings to the team, on and off the ball.
“He’s proven that he can go and win us matches by scoring and creating goals from midfield. That’s something that over the years we haven’t really had in this team. He’s been able to show that up. When I’m in the game, it’s not something I think about, but thinking about it now, yeah it’s special having two Scousers in the team.
“I never really played much with Curtis in the academy because he was a couple of years younger than me but we knew each other well. We always had a chat and some banter. To see him doing so well, I feel proud as well. He’s had his issues with injuries. He’ll have wanted to play more at times but he’s been given his chance and he’s taken it. That’s all you can ask for.”
Alexander-Arnold, who had won every major club honour he competed for by the age of 23, is already part of Klopp’s leadership group and a vocal presence in the dressing room. He’s ready to help fill the void created by the departure of vice-captain James Milner this summer.
“He’s a criminally underrated player. Some think of him as just a workhorse who will do his job. But, technically, James Milner is among the best I’ve ever played with,” he says.
“Then there’s everything else he brings to the squad with his leadership. He’s truly relentless in everything he does. I’ll definitely never play with anyone like him again. That’s probably the biggest compliment I can give him.
“We will all need to fill that big gap. I don’t think it’s just down to a single person. All of us need to step up and ensure that we maintain the standards that Millie has set for the past eight years here.”
There’s a roar from outside where teams are competing in the inaugural Red Bull Four 2 Score UK tournament at Powerleague Liverpool. The winners march on to the world finals in Leipzig, Germany in August.
Prior to our chat, Alexander-Arnold has been running the rule over the contenders in the innovative four-a-side format with smaller goals, no goalkeepers and goals counting double during the first and last minute.
“It’s been really good. The quality has surprised me and I love the concept. It’s high risk, high reward — that’s my kind of football, just going for it,” he says.
If he was entering a team, which four would he select from Klopp’s squad? “Me, Virg, Mo and Bobby. First sub? Diaz.”
Our time is nearly up. It’s been a morale-boosting end to a largely underwhelming campaign. So where are Liverpool at as they head into a pivotal summer? Can they really get back to going toe to toe with Manchester City again next season?
“Definitely we can,” Alexander-Arnold says.
“That’s where I expect us to be. I expect us to be challenging for the title next season and getting to the latter stages of the Champions League and the other cups as well. One trophy per season, minimum, is what we should be targeting.
“This has been a positive period in a negative season. It’s been a season where nothing has gone our way and we’ve felt a lot of disappointment. Now it feels like there’s finally some positives to come out of it and that’s a good feeling.
“If we don’t get top four that will be a disappointment because that’s the bare minimum. But with the run we’ve put together at a difficult time, we’ve proved to ourselves that we can do it and we can overcome a lot of things as a team.
“This has been a season we need to learn from and one we can use as experience to ensure it never happens again.”
- To find out more about Red Bull Four 2 Score, visit: redbull.com
(Photo: Daniel Chesterton/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)
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