Man City vs Liverpool is Trent Alexander-Arnold’s acid test in his hybrid role

Trent Alexander-Arnold spins a pass with his right foot
Trent Alexander-Arnold will have his hands full against Manchester City but it is essential he is on top of his game defensively as well as in his playmaker role - Matt McNulty/Getty Images
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Liverpool’s last visit to Manchester City was a watershed moment in Jürgen Klopp’s reign and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s career.

Klopp knew before the 4-1 drubbing in April there would be fundamental changes to his team over the summer. But it was an instant tactical switch in the aftermath of the defeat that triggered the start of an Anfield revival.

The sobering afternoon in Manchester was the last time Alexander-Arnold played as an orthodox right-back. The following weekend – a 2-2 draw with Arsenal – saw the introduction of the ‘hybrid role’ in which the full-back regularly drifts into midfield when Liverpool are in possession, echoing what Pep Guardiola had previously done with João Cancelo.

Liverpool’s ‘Trent System’ was effectively conceived in Manchester. The team’s recovery since then speaks for itself and explains why they return to the Etihad with such high hopes.

Liverpool have lost just one of their 23 Premier League games since losing to City, and that was not a legitimate defeat given the trip to Tottenham Hotspur included a legal Luis Díaz goal which was controversially disallowed.

Facing City with Trent deployed in a position Guardiola has since moved on from – he uses John Stones as a ‘hybrid centre-back’ when he can nowadays – represents the ultimate test as to whether Klopp has found the answer to a recurring question; how to maximise Alexander-Arnold’s attacking strengths without exposing defensive weaknesses.

The signs and results over the last seven months are encouraging. For his club, what initially looked like a compromise has become a permanent solution.

Is Trent a full-back or midfielder? For Liverpool he is both, but that puts a huge responsibility upon him, especially against opponents such as City.

For his country, Alexander-Arnold’s days as a right-back already seem to be over. When Gareth Southgate names him in his squad, he is listed as a midfielder not a defender.

My suspicion is that the player prefers it that way, with hints he would rather his dual role ended. His comments while on international duty were striking.

“My specific skillset and what I’m best at is someone who plays in the middle,” he said. “You probably get more out of me from being in the middle and I’m able to show off that skillset as much as possible.”

This is understandable. What other playmakers in the world are expected to run the game from midfield with the ball, only to go chasing speedy left wingers without it? Whether he is facing Jérémy Doku or Jack Grealish on Saturday, the expectation for Alexander-Arnold to deliver at both ends of the pitch is massive. It is hard enough doing one job to a world-class level against City, let alone two.

Southgate demonstrated his foresight when identifying this a few years ago, initially criticised for using Alexander-Arnold as a midfielder. Although England were not great against Malta and North Macedonia, there was plenty to like about Alexander-Arnold’s performances, especially in the first game. An exciting, balanced midfield trio of Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice and Alexander-Arnold can take the national team close to winning Euro 2024. They would be my first choice.

Trent Alexander-Arnold is tackled when playing for England
Alexander-Arnold is in Jamie Carragher's strongest midfield three to start for England at Euro 2024 - REUTERS/Carl Recine

Klopp, however, remains convinced his vice-captain operates best as a roaming right-back, his signing four midfielders last summer proof that he is unmoved by suggestions that Alexander-Arnold was a ready-made-solution during last summer’s central reshuffle.

Nobody knows the player better than the Liverpool manager and you cannot argue with the overall impact. Whatever Klopp’s short-term and long-term visions for the team, Alexander-Arnold is fundamental.

He is one of Klopp’s ‘untouchables’ alongside Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, among the biggest reasons why Liverpool have revived themselves so quickly after last season’s deterioration.

His talent has never been an issue; ensuring the weapon of his right foot is spoken about before and after the biggest games more than the flaw of his one-to-one defending is.

Wherever Alexander-Arnold operates he will be influential against most Premier League sides, especially when Liverpool are dominant on the ball. Whether he spends most of his time on the right delivering pinpoint crosses, or plays more centrally and uses his tremendous repertoire of passing skills, he is one of the most technically gifted players in Europe.

Where Klopp and his coaching staff have a match-defining tactical puzzle against a side of City’s class is maintaining the right balance between Trent’s attacking and defensive duties. My worry is even against weaker sides this has not been right.

Liverpool’s last Premier League away game was against Luton Town when they were fortunate to escape with a draw. Luton’s best player that day was Chiedozie Ogbene, who was under orders from the first whistle to attack the space down Liverpool’s left.

This remains a theme – an easy, go-to strategy for opposing managers who identify a weakness to exploit, especially when counter-attacking. When Ibrahima Konaté plays at centre-back, Klopp has someone with the pace to cover Alexander-Arnold’s midfield positioning, but it remains an imperfect solution. Liverpool’s away form so far is poor, in stark contrast to their 100 per cent Anfield record.

Guardiola will be zoning in on this. It is no coincidence that Grealish enjoyed one of his best games in a Manchester City shirt against Liverpool in April, relishing the space and time he was afforded on the left as he got the better of Alexander-Arnold in one-to-one duels. Doku, meanwhile, is one of the Premier League’s in-form players and will love being isolated against the full-back.

Most coaches visiting the Etihad choose to be cautious. That is not Klopp’s way. He rarely, if ever, compromises playing on the front-foot, standing or falling by his attacking principles. That is what makes this fixture one of the most compelling in world football and a guarantee of goals when both sides are on form. Klopp and Guardiola always believe their team’s offensive strengths will compensate for any perceived weaknesses.

Liverpool currently have more flaws to hide, so although they face City as title rivals again, there is more convincing to be done to prove they can keep the pace as in previous years.

There was a 22-point gap between the clubs at the end of last season. Expecting Liverpool to close it and become champions a year later is highly ambitious. Guardiola’s side are still in first gear yet everyone else is playing catch-up.

City provides the acid test for a side on an upward trajectory. We will soon have the truest measure of the progress of Liverpool and their ‘Trent System’.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.