Is Trent Alexander-Arnold really the problem for Liverpool defensively? Here’s why it’s complicated

In divisive times like this, I believe it’s important to make an active effort to find the rare things that unite us all. While the internet and growing global economic inequality seemed to be slowly fracturing culture day by day, the pandemic then accelerated the process into hyper-speed. Log onto Twitter on a given day and you’ll find plenty of people you aggressively agree with and even more who you aggressively disagree with. But behind that terrible 280-character opinion you just read and that vague, anonymous, in-joke username, there is a person (most of the time). And that person, just like you, is struggling with a lot of the same issues, day after day.

Of course, it’s really hard to not get sucked into that cycle of aggrievement, and sometimes it can feel like a relief to know that so many people out there are wrong and you are right. So, I’m going to help. What I propose is that we all come together to appreciate one of the few universally beloved institutions in the world today: the fullback play of Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Just kidding! If you so much as dare whisper the initials TAA while you’re staring into a mirror, a ghoul will appear behind you. It will scream, “BUT CAN HE DEFEND?” Then another ghoul will appear behind the first ghoul and it will scream, “JURGEN KLOPP’S SYSTEM DOESN’T REQUIRE HIM TO DEFEND.” The screaming will continue, back and forth, until it combines into such a high-pitched, dissonant screech that the frequency of the sound will tear a hole in the fabric of the universe and usher in the apocalypse.

At least, it sure seems that way sometimes!

With Liverpool sitting in ninth place seven matches into the season, Alexander-Arnold’s defensive struggles have become more acute. A player that many consider to be the best right back in the world is suddenly on the fringes of the English national team picture, too. With a trip to league-leaders Arsenal on Sunday, what is really going on with Liverpool’s right-back?

How much worse is Liverpool’s defense?

The big difference between Liverpool this year and Liverpool last year seems to be how vulnerable they are without the ball. In Jurgen Klopp’s first year-and-a-half with the club, it seemed like the press was the only way to defend. The team had to win the ball high up the field because every time the opposition entered their defensive third, it would end in disaster. At times, it seemed like an opposing goalkeeper could just punt the ball as high into the air as possible, have it land in Liverpool territory and see his team profit.

Out of this chaos, they gradually transformed into one of the best defensive teams in the world, thanks to the additions of Fabinho in the midfield, Virgil van Dijk in the back, and Alisson in goal. When the opposition broke the initial press, Fabinho was there to break it up and slow it down. When the counterattacks advanced past Fabinho, van Dijk was there to clean it all up. And in the rare moments when both of them were bypassed, Alisson stopped 1v1s better than anyone else in the world.

However, Liverpool also simply just got better at defending in their own box. Over the Klopp era, the team has progressively allowed a smaller percentage of opposition possessions to reach their attacking third, but they’ve also allowed a progressively larger number of those same possessions to reach their penalty area. However, the number of shots they’ve allowed from possessions that reached the penalty area had declined year over year through 2021-22.

What that all means is that — come last year, which featured the best team of the Klopp era, in my opinion — they’d evolve into a side that sold out in the first two phases of the game to win the ball back but then was a bit more comfortable slowing the opposition when the forward line and the midfield were bypassed. It’s a very tricky balance to maintain, but it produced one of the best teams of the 21st century.

This season, though, they haven’t been able to thread the needle in the same way. They’re allowing 27% of opposition possessions to reach the final third — the lowest figure of the Klopp era, and the percentage of those possessions that reach the penalty area is roughly the same as last season. But they’re now allowing a much higher percentage of those penalty-area possessions to lead to shots. They’re selling out to keep the ball out of their defensive third, but once the press gets broken, the other team doesn’t have much trouble moving the ball into open space to attempt a shot.

As such, they’re allowing 1.3 goals per game — the worst rate of the Klopp era and a significant uptick from last season’s 0.7, which was the best mark of the Klopp era. While they’re only allowing 8.4 shots per 90 minutes — right around the average since Klopp took over — the average quality of those shots is 0.14 expected goals, the second-worst mark in the Premier League this season.

How much of this is TAA’s fault?

Let’s get this out of the way first: Trent Alexander-Arnold is not a good defender, at least in the traditional sense.

If you stand a ball up against him at the back post or throw multiple attackers at him to combine around him on the wing, you are increasing your probability of scoring a goal or creating a chance. He’s very good when pressing high up the field and trying to win back loose balls, but he tends to struggle in space and frequently gets lost as he cycles through the opposition’s attacking rotations. And he’s sometimes slow to react to the moments when Liverpool lose the ball and the opponent starts pushing the ball forward.

This, of course, is true for most modern attacking full-backs for two reasons: 1) Modern attackers are really good and most wide players these days are trained to attack the goal, rather than just hug the touchline and whip in crosses. 2) The full-backs on the best teams in the world spend most of their time attacking, rather than defending. If TAA had developed in a way that lessened his attacking ability, but increased his defensive performance, he would be way less valuable to Liverpool — and any of the other top teams in the world — because he’d be better at the thing that he doesn’t do as often.

If TAA was a great defender in addition to being the attacking player he currently is, he would be the greatest soccer player of all time not named Lionel Messi. We do not live in that magical, unattainable reality. Other than Ricardo Quaresma, perfect soccer players do not exist.

So, the question for right now, I think, is: Has anything changed from last year to this year? Well, in the Premier League this season, Liverpool have conceded eight goals from open play, and I think we can classify the goals into four categories:

  • 1) TAA gets beaten directly for a goal
  • 2) TAA gets beaten somewhere in a possession that ultimately leads to a goal
  • 3) The goal comes while he’s pushed high up the field
  • 4) Even TAA’s biggest skeptics wouldn’t blame him for that

Against Fulham, Aleksandar Mitrovic won a header over him at the back post. Against Brighton, Leandro Trossard put him in the spin-cycle before thumping a shot past Alisson to open the scoring. We’ll call those both category 1.

Against Manchester United, Jadon Sancho‘s goal came after a right-sided combination around TAA. We’ll call that category 2. Other goals in the Brighton, United and Crystal Palace matches all came from counterattacks down the right side while TAA was pushed high up the field to aid Liverpool’s attack. That’s category 3. And then the third goal against Brighton and the one goal for Newcastle both fall in category 4.

How does that compare to last season? With TAA on the field in 2021-22, Liverpool allowed 16 open-play goals. Early in the season, Brentford scored two goals by standing balls up at the back post to isolate TAA against multiple attackers. That’s all of category 1.

Then there were, by my counting, three goals where TAA made a mistake during a possession that ultimately led to a goal. That’s category 2. Then there were six goals from counters or long balls that exploited or ended somewhere near the right-back space that TAA had vacated in order to push forward. And then there were five — a Jonjo Shelvey golazo, an Alisson mistake against Spurs, Enock Mwepu accidentally crossing the ball into Liverpool’s goal, things of that nature — that fall into category 4.

If we say categories 1 and 2 are “plays you can get mad at TAA for if you really want to,” then there have been three this season and there were five last season. I’d argue that expecting him to win headers against Mitrovic or Ivan Toney is silly, so if we cut those out, we have two this year and three last year.

That’s a much higher rate than last season, but these are still such small numbers — one mis-hit shot or save, and we’re talking one goal. Plus, the rate of goals conceded from counters — three so far this season, six all of last year — has increased, too. TAA hasn’t gotten worse, I don’t think — he’s just in positions where he’s likely to look worse more often. Brighton, in particular, seemed to target his area of the field. These are all of their passes that increased the team’s chances of scoring by at least 5%:

When the possession turns into a goal, we’re way more likely to go back and parcel out blame, but defenders really shouldn’t be judged by what happens once the ball leaves a player’s foot. If you make a mistake, whether or not it leads to a goal doesn’t erase the fact that you made a mistake. And at least so far this season, opponents have actually created more danger down Liverpool’s left side than their right.

The map is shaded by how much opponents increase their likelihood of scoring from actions in that particular zone.

There are two other factors behind Liverpool’s leaky defense that don’t necessarily belong to TAA in particular. The first is that they’re drawing opponents offside 1.9 times per game — the fewest in the Klopp era — after a Klopp-era high of 3.8 last season. An extra offside or two per game would go a long way to extinguishing some of those high-quality chances they’ve allowed.

Then there’s how well their opponents are shooting. Last season, Liverpool allowed 1.0 xG per game, but the quality of their opponents’ shot placement turned that into 0.7 xG per game based on Stats Perform’s post-shot model. This year, they’re allowing 1.2 xG per game, which is the highest of the Klopp era, but doesn’t suggest as much of a decline as we’ve seen. However, opponents have turned that 1.2 xG into 1.5 post-shot xG with their placement.

As Liverpool get healthier, as the offside trap improves and as their opponents stop sniping out the corners, I suspect we’ll be talking less about what a defensive liability their right-back is.

Don’t forget the other end of the field

Across Europe’s Big Five leagues, Alexander-Arnold ranked fourth among all players in expected assists, third in passes into the penalty area, second in through-balls and first in progressive passes. Plus, he’s doing this as a nominal defender. When you’re getting that kind of passing production from a full-back, it’s more valuable than if it were coming from a midfielder or an attacker. There are simply more bodies ahead of him to take advantage of all that passing. It also just means you’re getting all of that production, plus the production from all your attackers and your midfielders. It’s like a catcher who hits 40 home runs or a center who hits 40% of his threes.

Put another way: Since the last World Cup, no other Premier League player has created more expected assists, and only Kevin De Bruyne has registered more actual assists than Alexander-Arnold.

This season, however, he has zero assists from just 0.7 expected assists. On a per-90 basis, he’s dropped from 0.35 xA last season to 0.12 this season. Instead, he’s upped his progressive-passing rate (10.5 per 90, from 8.8) and is more involved with moving the ball into the final third — from 7.3 passes into the final third to 8.3. However, he’s also second in the league in passes into the penalty area and first in the league in crosses into the penalty — both at increased rates from last season.

Given that he’s completing more passes into the most dangerous area of the field, the drop-off in chance-creation seems more likely to be a short-term blip and a product of the environment around him; without Sadio ManeDiogo Jota, or Darwin Nunez for good or for most of this season, Liverpool’s front three has lacked the goal-scoring juice of season’s past. And although they’re scoring more goals per game this season than last (2.6 to 2.5), they’re creating significantly fewer xG: 1.9, down from 2.6.

Now, Klopp did make some tweaks to Liverpool’s formation and personnel in the 2-0 Champions League win against Rangers. He played four attackers and just two midfielders, opting for the pass-heavy duo of Thiago and Jordan Henderson, rather than the defensive stability of Fabinho. Within that set-up TAA was more reserved and frequently slid in as a third center-back during buildup play. He led the team in passes completed into the final third, but didn’t complete a single one into the penalty area.

Perhaps that will signal a pivot in approach going forward, or maybe it was just the plan for one match. But for six years, Klopp has weighed the risks and decided that his one-of-a-kind right-back will be able to hurt his opponents way more than they’ll be able to hurt him. And for six years, he’s almost always been right.

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