'His passing makes me go wow!' - Alexander-Arnold picks his perfect player
Trent Alexander-Arnold is on the rise – but you knew that already.
“It’s been a good year,” says the Liverpool defender, with only a hint of a smile. “One to remember, definitely.”
We have caught up with the 22-year-old to talk about Goal 50 , the annual countdown which celebrates the best performers from around the world over the previous campaign.
Alexander-Arnold features, of course, one of six Liverpool players on the list. He is No.14, one place higher than in 2019. “Hopefully top 10 next year then!” he says.
Already a European, world and Premier League champion, the PFA Young Player of the Year, an established international and one of the best full-backs on the planet, the young Scouser is in no mood to settle now.
“For every athlete, every footballer, the mentality has to be to try and improve,” he says. “If you look at the two best that I’ve seen, and probably will ever see, it’s [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi, and they have always wanted to improve, to achieve things individually and as a team.
“Messi’s won six Ballons d’Or and Ronaldo’s won five, but they’ve never settled and rested. They’ve never thought that they’ve done enough. They have that hunger and desire and determination 24/7, every day of the year. They never switch off.
“For me, that’s the example I need to be following. If they’re still doing it at their age, and to the level they are doing it, then that’s something I want to try and reach, those levels of consistency.”
Alexander-Arnold is in good form as the interview continues. The purpose of the chat, Goal explains, is to construct his ideal footballer, taking attributes from players he has played with or against.
Messi, naturally, features heavily. Alexander-Arnold may have enjoyed one of his greatest nights against him, the Champions League semi-final at Anfield in 2019, but he shakes his head in disbelief when asked what it is like to face the Argentine superstar.
“Tough, to say the least!” he smiles. Messi, unsurprisingly, gets Alexander-Arnold’s vote when it comes to both ‘left foot’ and ‘football intelligence’.
“Even if he’s not anywhere near the ball, he’s always in your thought process,” he explains. “You’re trying to play your game, trying to attack, but he’s always in your mind because you know if they can get the ball to him then anything can happen. He can do anything from anywhere on the pitch.
“Even if he’s not looking your way, you’re concentrating because he can see things that you can’t. You have to try and see the whole pitch.
“He sees things quicker than anyone, he can read what a defender is going to do and just sidestep them as if they’re not even there. A lot of the time, it’s like he’s just playing against mannequins.
“To be honest, he could be in five or six of these categories. For 15 years he’s been doing things that have never been seen before. He doesn’t have a weakness. There’s nothing I haven’t seen him do, and for that reason he’s the best player ever. If I ever see anyone anywhere near him, then I’ll count myself lucky.”
He is similarly gushing about Kevin De Bruyne, his selection in the ‘right foot’ category. The Manchester City star may be a rival, but Alexander-Arnold’s admiration is clear.
“He is the best passer I’ve ever played against,” he says. “When you’re in and amongst it, it’s rare that you still have those 'wow' moments, where you’re taken aback by what you see. When you’re playing every day and training with those sort of players, you almost get accustomed to seeing it.
“But De Bruyne is still the one who gives me those moments, where I’m watching one of his games and he’ll produce a pass where I’m just like ‘wow!’”
That word – wow – could apply to the man Alexander-Arnold picks in the ‘speed’ category too. This, he explains, was probably the easiest decision of all.
“Adama Traore, easily!” he says, puffing his cheeks out as he talks about the Wolves winger. “It’s almost not human the way he can change direction and go. I’ve never felt so powerless against someone.
“People are faster than you, that’s inevitable, but you can get yourself in good positions, give yourself a head start and get yourself in the race. But with him, and with his power as well, there’s nothing you can really do.
“I remember last season when he came on at Anfield. He’s just turned and knocked it, and he was gone. I’ve never felt like that before! It has to be him, has to be.”
There’s no question, either, when it comes to the ‘engine’ category. Modern footballers tend to be fitness freaks, whether they are a winger or a goalkeeper, but there is one man who, even at 34, continues to set the standard.
“James Milner, easily!” Alexander-Arnold says. “We are a fit team, there are a lot of players who have great engines – Hendo, Gini, Robbo. But Milly, I don’t think I’ll ever see anyone as fit as him.
“I remember a few years ago Kev Stewart would give him a run for his money in pre-season, but considering his age and how long he’s played for, to still be the fittest player in arguably the fittest team in the world, and by some margin, that takes some doing. It has to be Milly.”
Naturally, Alexander-Arnold is happiest when talking about his team-mates. Virgil van Dijk gets the nod for the ‘heading’ category – “he’s so dominant in both boxes” – while he describes Sadio Mane, his direct opponent in training matches at Melwood, as “the best physical athlete” he has worked with.
Mohamed Salah, though, is his pick when it comes to ‘strength’.
“He’s ripped as well!” he smiles. “But you see the way he can shield the ball and bully defenders with his body. He loves to get them close and then spin them, doesn’t he?
“He’s unbelievably strong, and he’s lightning fast as well. With those sort of players, both of our wingers, it’s so hard to defend against. You can’t get close to them and you can’t give them space because they’re so good in both situations.”
As a full-back, of course, Alexander-Arnold is used to dealing with the strong, the quick and the skilful. Salah and Mane test him every day in training, while dealing with the likes of Traore, Marcus Rashford, Wilfried Zaha and Neymar, the most tricky opponent he has faced, has been an education.
“I would probably have to say Neymar for skill,” he says. “Zaha has really fast feet, and you have to be on your game against him.
“But Neymar is really good at shifting your body weight. He gets you off balance, gets you shifting your hips and moving your feet, and then goes the other way. He’s gone.
“And when you think the ball is there to be won, he’ll just nick it away from you. It’s hard to process how quickly those players move, and with all the feints and that, it’s really hard to play against.”
We finish by speaking about Robert Lewandowski, the world’s best No.9 according to Alexander-Arnold, and the winner of the Goal 50 for 2020.
A treble winner with Bayern Munich, the Pole would surely have been a shoo-in for the Ballon d’Or had the award not been cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis.
“That was probably a bit unjust,” Alexander-Arnold says. “He was destined for that.
“I’m sure he’ll be disappointed because not many players in this era can say they’ve won it except for those two!
“But he knows what he’s achieved, amazing things, so many trophies. His numbers are scary. Over the last 10 years, there’s only really been him and [Luis] Suarez, as strikers, who have come close to [Messi and Ronaldo] in terms of numbers, consistency. Those two have set the boundary so high, scoring 60 a season, so for anyone to even come close to those numbers is an achievement in itself.
“Lewandowski is an unbelievable player, and to be posting those numbers at his age is an amazing achievement. It just shows that footballers are taking it that step further. He’s setting an example for strikers in Europe to try and follow.”
A worthy winner, for sure. But do not be surprised to see Alexander-Arnold himself in the mix in years to come.
At 22, the best is yet to come.