Trent Alexander-Arnold is a born-again David Beckham
If Trent Alexander-Arnold could not win Gareth Southgate’s heart as the finest right-back in the world, an accolade to which he answers throughout the Liverpudlian diaspora, then it shall have to be as a born-again David Beckham.
Though Southgate has repeatedly overlooked Alexander-Arnold in his squad selections, he professes himself not only an admirer but a believer in his adapted midfield role, a position he imagined for the Liverpool pin-up before Jurgen Klopp adopted it at Anfield.
Southgate acknowledges the Beckham-like delivery available to Alexander-Arnold that is not in the gift of many. The difficulty will always be assimilation alongside the central certainty of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham. It would appear his inclusion for the June internationals against Malta and North Macedonia next month is part of a wider philosophical shift towards versatility, an example of which as well as Alexander-Arnold, would be the deployment of John Stones in Manchester City’s midfield. Where Pep and Klopp go others automatically follow.
Yet Alexander-Arnold would offer Southgate a dynamic option, a way to break lines unconventionally against the kind of well-drilled defensive blocks increasingly encountered by England. He was one of a number of players contacted directly by Southgate in the past week to discuss how he might adapt the position with England.
“All things are possible,” Southgate said. “He seems excited by what he’s been doing. He seems enthused by the role. I know talking to him that has been the case. We are still in the early stages of it, so there’s a lot of work needs to happen. One of the difficulties when we put him in there before is he’s not doing it every week. To transfer that into a game is hard. That’s a little bit different now.
“There’s a still a lot to learn in terms of receiving it [the ball] more under pressure. A lot of the teams they have played so far there has been time to receive. A couple of the more recent games he has been pressed a lot more and that has been different. Defending in midfield would be slightly different so there is new aspect of the game to learn and that’s not going to be perfect to start. Bu he obviously has some attributes that are unique.
“He is one that will look forward early and will play passes in behind defences, where others maybe don’t have that view first. You have [James] Maddison and players like that who are also talented passers of the ball. It’s interesting because he’s a different profile to what we might have.”
The grounds for Alexander-Arnold’s prior exclusions have never been anything other than technical, according to Southgate. Similarly his assimilation into the squad now is driven by a desire to a accommodate a player he acknowledges is special. That his previous treatment of Alexander-Arnold was seen as somehow personal was comprehensively dismissed.
“I felt it was good to chat to him about what he is doing, about how I see it, how he sees it, what it might become. Contrary to what might be the mood music, I have a really good relationship with him and we talk a lot about his game, football. I’ve always recognised his qualities as a player but he’s just been bloody unlucky that we’ve got [Kyle] Walker, who has just had three of the best games I’ve seen from a right-back, [Kieran] Trippier, who has probably been one of the outstanding players this season, Reece James also.
“So that has been difficult. England won’t have been as fulfilling because he has unbelievable experiences with Liverpool and we haven’t been able to give him the same, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think he is a bloody good footballer, and you’d like to find a way of it working because of his talents.”
Raheem Sterling was another who received the personal touch. Southgate was connecting with a player he trusts, letting him know he cared as much as to assess his physical condition. Sterling ruled himself out but, barring catastrophe, he would expect to be in Southgate’s European Championships squad next summer.
“I can’t see a scenario when Chelsea aren’t in the top six next year, and I’m sure he will be fundamental to that,” Southgate said. “I would always back him to respond strongly and to have the resilience and tenacity to prove himself. He has shown time and again for us that he has been an important player. His mental toughness stands out and why I would expect him to come up at a good level. He’s an important part of our group and that remains the same.”
Whilst Sterling is a known quantity and in a strong position, the dazzling 24-year-old Crystal Palace Eberechi Eze has the potential to undo old thinking as powerfully as he beguiles opposition defences. Competition is fierce, and a good impression in the last action of the summer might ultimately prove more troublesome for Sterling than his fragile hamstring.