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England’s right-back puzzle

England’s right-back puzzle

0:00

Trent Alexander-Arnold is arguably the best right-back in world football. Why isn’t he first choice for England?


Transcript

Hi, I’m Andrew and this is the Playmaker. 

One story every day to make sense of the world of football. 

Today… the Alexander-Arnold question. 

***

What makes a good full-back? 

We could say pace and stamina, the ability to attack and defend on the wings. There’s crossing and passing… and if you can take set-pieces well, that’s a bonus. 

“Because once again, as we’ve talked about so many times over the last few weeks, it was wing-backs, full-backs, they’ve dominated the conversation after the game.”

“Yeah they have, and I think they’re playing prominent roles. I mean, you look at full-backs in the game in the last couple of years, they’ve been, in terms of touches of the ball throughout the season, they’ll be at the top of the charts, a lot of them.”

BT Sport

Let’s get personal. Who’s the best wing-back in the game today?  Arguably, it’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.  He’s deployed by Jurgen Klopp on the right-hand side of Liverpool’s back four. 

And he’s still only 23 years old. That makes him an automatic choice for Gareth Southgate and the England team. 

Or so you’d think. 

Because, Trent has made just one start for England at a major tournament – the match against  Belgium in the World Cup in Russia. 

Having already qualified for the knockout stages, Southgate made eight changes to the regular starting eleven.  And so Alexander-Arnold could be forgiven for thinking he was a second choice selection.

Now, with two World Cup qualifiers coming up this week – versus Albania and San Marino – Southgate is once again facing calls to give Alexander-Arnold a go. 

Klopp is puzzled about his lack of playing time for England. 

“But I didn’t understand it anyway. Because Trent Alexander-Arnold, for the last two years at least, let me say the season before and the season before, the stand out right-back in world football. At an unbelievable young age.”

Goal

The Telegraph said that Southgate “must make Alexander-Arnold his first choice.” Mark Lawrenson agrees.  Writing in his column for BBC Sport, the former Liverpool man said Trent does things that “make you go wow.”  Take last weekend…

“It’s Alexander-Arnold! Oh there was nothing that West Ham could do about that! Fabianski rooted, that was quality!”

“Just look at that. Postage stamp!”

Sky Sports

In terms of pure talent and attacking ability, it’s not hard to argue that Alexander-Arnold deserves to go straight into the England side. 

But as always in football, it isn’t quite that simple, as Gareth Southgate knows.  He likes to alter his formation. 

When playing a back four, he plumps for a skilled defender in the right-back role. And looking back at past team selections, it’s clear his preference is for Kyle Walker. 

Liverpool’s system usually allows other players to come across to cover if Trent is positioned high up the pitch. And even Klopp agrees that defending may not be Alexander-Arnold’s best attribute. 

“And he defends on a really high level for us as well, it’s not his first skill but it’s not bad. It’s really good.” 

Goal

Yet Southgate describes defending as the “bedrock” of his team.  

In a back three, Kyle Walker plays as the right-sided centre-back. That leaves a gap for the right wing-back in front of him. Freed from some of the defensive responsibility, that’s where Alexander-Arnold could come in.

Southgate has an interesting conundrum, because England have an abundance of talented right-backs.

Chelsea’s Reece James already plays at wing-back on the right-hand side of a 3-4-2-1 formation.  Southgate could slot him into the same role in the England side. 

And the England boss has already proved he trusts Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier in that position too.  

Here’s what Southgate himself has to say about his choices at right-back.

“In my opinion that’s the first job of a defender, you’ve got to defend well. If then we’ve got good quality with the ball as well, then we can create chances, then that’s an added bonus and of course the players that we’ve got in the squad in the full-back positions can do both things so it’s about delivering that on a consistent basis and doing that in the international team as you step up.”

Sky Sports

So there we have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: a defender’s most important role is to defend rather than attack.

Those qualities we described at the start about the characteristics of the modern, attacking full-back are less important when you don’t play a Klopp style all-out attack. 

And perhaps it’s important to remember here that former England managers have been criticised for compromising their system so they can shoehorn talented players into the side that don’t work well together. 

Lampard and Gerrard, anyone?

For Southgate, it’s the other way round: the system comes first.

And that’s why one of our most exciting footballers may not be able to get into the England team.

Southgate’s supporters will argue that any coach who’s taken England to a World Cup semi-final and a European Championships final should be given the benefit of the doubt.  But his detractors will say safety first doesn’t win trophies.

Today’s episode was written by Chloe Beresford, and produced by Imy Harper.