DOMINIC KING: Trent Alexander-Arnold’s wayward first-half free-kick summed up his display – the wait goes on for the performance that will give the Liverpool star’s England career lift-off
- Alexander-Arnold has scored plenty of free-kicks from similar positions recently
- But he hit the set-piece high and horribly wide against Andorra at Wembley
- The Reds star usually plays at right-back and struggled in a midfield position
- There are still question marks about Alexander-Arnold in a Three Lions jersey
Trent Alexander-Arnold steadied himself. Hands on hips, a couple of deep breaths then two steps back as he tried to gauge the range. You will have seen this routine during games involving Liverpool.
His execution of free-kicks is outstanding, a quality that enhances his reputation as one of the best right-backs around. He’s bent plenty of goals in from similar positions in recent years, so there was an air of expectation.
With one final glance, Alexander-Arnold looked up and then… whipped his free-kick high and horribly wide. It was the final minute of the first half and if ever one piece of action summed a player’s efforts for the preceding 45 minutes, this was it.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s wayward free-kick summed up his showing for England on Saturday
Down went Alexander-Arnold’s head, shaking as if to admonish himself. He had described his form for England as ‘mediocre’ on the morning of this assignment against Andorra and not even his biggest fan would attempt to paint what they had seen to that point in a different light.
But, on this occasion, there was something else to factor in. Alexander-Arnold spent the first half deployed in midfield to the right of his club and country captain, Jordan Henderson, with Jude Bellingham galloping powerfully away to his left.
Bellingham will be in England’s midfield for many years to come. It might seem a statement of the obvious but there is something about this young man that sets him apart, the way he glides into positions and has the skill to extract himself from tight areas.
All the ingredients are there: pace, power, awareness, confidence, maturity. There was no evident scarring from the appalling racial abuse he had received in Hungary on Thursday, just a determination to make the most of his opportunity.
We have heard plenty of times, also, that Alexander-Arnold has all the weapons to excel in the engine room – Gary Lineker, for one, is a particular champion of a player whose passing is pinpoint – so how did it all pan out?
The answer to that particular question came at the start of the second half. Alexander-Arnold emerged alongside Reece James in deep discussion, pointing one way then another. As the game recommenced, you could see the pair had switched and the Liverpool man was now out wide.
Alexander-Arnold, typically a right-back, failed to impress in an unfamiliar central midfield role
Before the break, other than one switch of play that fizzed beautifully onto Bellingham’s foot, it was a story of frustration. He gave the ball away in the 15th minute then clattered into Andorra’s Marcio Vieira; he failed to control a pass from Jesse Lingard then strayed into James’s position.
It couldn’t continue – and it didn’t. This, perhaps, was an admission from Southgate that he had erred in putting the 22-year-old in unfamiliar territory to start off but this has not done anything to quell the debate about where Alexander-Arnold actually sits within in England’s squad.
Yes, he used to play in midfield as a youngster – there was one memorable display for Liverpool’s Under-18s, away at to Manchester United in October 2015, when he ran the game and scored twice – but Jurgen Klopp, the man who knows him best, has never felt compelled to experiment. There is a reason.
Klopp’s system is set up for his full-backs to cause havoc, with midfielder covering and central defenders offering protection. England’s style is different and, in some ways, asking him to shine in that role was like handing a golfer a cricket bat then expecting him to shoot level par.
‘I am a right-back,’ he said on Sunday. ‘I have played that my whole career and I have not really stepped out of it too much. In big games in the Premier League, I haven’t been thrown in there, so it’s tough to say that, yeah, I would be able to handle it. I just try to play football.’
Something that always strikes you about Alexander-Arnold in a red shirt is his ability to remain level-headed, he thinks quickly in high pressured moments – remember that corner in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona – and rarely looks flustered.
Alexander-Arnold has thus far been unable to replicate his fine Liverpool form for his country
It has been different for him with England. It feels a long time since he wheeled away with his arms outstretched, celebrating his sole international goal, against the United States in November 2018. He’s only played nine times since then, which indicates how challenging it has been for him.
Back in more familiar territory, his levels went up after the break. He started doing things instinctively again, pushing on and playing good passes. One surge in the 89th minute, with the game long since won, should have led to Lingard completing a hat-trick.
‘I don’t feel we lost anything by having a look at it,’ said Southgate. ‘We felt that at half-time we could actually get more from Trent and Reece and Hendo by rotating those three and actually they started the second-half well. We just wanted to see something different.’
England boss Gareth Southgate (above) will be unconvinced by the results of his experiment
Clearly, however, it was not enough to provide satisfaction. At the final whistle, as England’s players waved to the crowd, other than a cursory acknowledgement and two conversations with some of Andorra’s squad, Alexander-Arnold headed for the tunnel looking nonplussed.
Southgate felt the experiment was worthwhile but did he see enough to pick him for England’s one remaining big test, in Warsaw on Wednesday?
Recent history – and these 90 minutes – would say no. The wait goes on for the performance that will give his England career lift-off.
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