Man City boss Pep Guardiola had a clear strategy to secure victory against Liverpool in their Champions League quarter-final showdown this season. He analysed the Reds’ backline, identified a weakness at right-back and told his men to ruthlessly target teenage defender Trent Alexander-Arnold in a bid to carve out opportunities.
Yet Alexander-Arnold, the youngest Englishman to ever play in a Champions League quarter-final, made an absolutely mockery of Guardiola’s approach. He kept Leroy Sane in his pocket throughout the game, produced a man of the match winning performance and had pundits raving about his talent in the wake of Liverpool’s 3-0 victory.
England right-back Kyle Walker was playing for Man City in that game, and Alexander-Arnold thoroughly outclassed him, making Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate sit up and take notice. With the likes of Walker and Kieran Trippier in the set-up, most felt it would be too soon for the Liverpool teenager to break into the England World Cup squad, but he continued to impress as the Reds surged into the Champions League final. In Kiev, Alexander-Arnold had the most daunting of tasks: marking World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Real Madrid forward comes alive in the big games, regularly deciding finals with his predatory instincts, his ethereal movement, his acceleration, his leap and his lethal finishing ability. But Alexander-Arnold kept him quiet throughout the game, once again displaying maturity and intelligence. Liverpool lost 3-1 due to a pair of goalkeeping howlers from Loris Karius, but Alexander-Arnold’s reputation was further enhanced. He now has crucial big game experience to go along with his youthful exuberance and undeniable talent, and it inspired Southgate to take a punt on him.
When the Three Lions coach named his 23-man squad, Alexander-Arnold was the most noteworthy inclusion. But it is hard to argue with his right to be on the plane to Russia this summer. Southgate knows that his team is top heavy, packed with exciting attackers like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli, but not exactly brimming with defensive talent. He will seek to shore things up at the back by sacrificing an attacker, playing three at the back and deploying full-backs. England’s best ball playing centre-backs are somewhat slow and cumbersome, so Southgate is likely to use Walker in the back three, hoping his pace will allow him to cover for the likes of John Stones and Harry Maguire if England are caught on the break. That would leave Trippier and Alexander-Arnold to battle it out for the right wing-back slot, and the latter may well win that one.
Trippier is a composed player, good on the ball, astute in his positioning and reading of the game, strong at timing his tackles and good at whipping in crosses. But Alexander-Arnold – while perhaps lacking a bit of polish and defensive nous – is quicker, a superior athlete and bursting with greater dynamism. Trippier is 27 and more experienced, but Alexander-Arnold has put forward a compelling case for a starting berth in recent weeks. Southgate was previously England’s under-21 manager and he is determined to give youth a chance, having selected the third youngest England squad to ever go to a World Cup. His three goalkeepers have just nine caps between them. Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere were left out. Southgate is clearly hoping that energy, pace and dynamism can make up for a lack of experience, and Alexander-Arnold fits in with that philosophy perfectly.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, it is worth noting that he has yet to even make his debut for the Three Lions, but upcoming friendlies will take care of that. He is part of a new generation, along with the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, that Southgate is championing, and he could cap his rise by nailing down a starting berth in Russia. Check the spread betting markets here and you will see that England are seventh in the list, after Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, Argentina and Belgium. England are not blessed with as many established, world-class stars as those nations, so their only choice is to turn to youth and hope to beat teams by displaying energy, pace and enthusiasm. Alexander-Arnold has been moulded in Jurgen Klopp’s all-action, hard-pressing, rock and roll football, and if he can inject a bit of that into the England team then the Three Lions could spring a few surprises in Russia this summer.