It’s fair to say Trent Alexander-Arnold wasn’t expecting the phone call.
The Liverpool defender had been preparing for another round of international fixtures with England when he was stopped in his tracks.
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‘Sorry Trent, you’re not in my squad.’
It hit hard. Alexander-Arnold knew competition for the right-back spot was fierce, but he hadn’t anticipated this. Southgate opted for experience in the shape of Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier, while Chelsea’s Reece James was the preferred ‘younger’ option.
All three featured during England’s trio of World Cup qualifiers, with James and Trippier sharing duties against San Marino, and Walker playing the full 90 minutes against Albania and Poland.
Alexander-Arnold, meanwhile, spent the past fortnight at Liverpool’s training base in Kirkby. He played 45 minutes in a practice match last week, a game which featured a mix of first-teamers (the likes of Fabinho, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner) and academy players (Mateusz Musialowski, Leighton Clarkson, Conor Bradley and Billy Koumetio).
Had Southgate been watching, he might have been forced to reconsider his selection. Alexander-Arnold’s performance, according to one observer, was that of a man with a point to prove, a player with the bit very much between his teeth.
“A wounded animal,” was the assessment.
Good news for Liverpool, then, as they look to salvage a season which ran off track during the winter months. They’ll need their creative king for that, and if Southgate’s snub lights a fire beneath Alexander-Arnold then it will be Jurgen Klopp who feels the benefit most.
Forget England – and most Liverpool supporters have little trouble doing that – the Reds still have plenty to play for, with a tasty Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid on the horizon.
Their hopes of a top-four finish in the Premier League may have receded, but there are still nine games left and the gap to Chelsea in fourth is only five points. Stranger things have happened.
There have been signs of recovery in recent games too, both for the team and, in an individual sense, for Alexander-Arnold.
The 22-year-old has suffered as much as anyone from the malaise which has gripped Klopp’s side in recent months – and there are reasons for that which should not be dismissed too readily – but he has started to look like himself again of late.
Even Southgate, when explaining his England omission, suggested there had been “steps in the right direction” in terms of his form. “Trent is a super talent,” he added, “and I’m sure he’ll play a big part with England in the future.”
Damn right he will. Class is permanent, as they say, and Alexander-Arnold has it in spades. Whatever his struggles, this is a champion, a world-class footballer, a player whose style and talent is helping redefine the role of the modern-day full-back.
His numbers are staggering, and so are his achievements.
At 22, he is already a European, world and Premier League champion. He has already played at a World Cup and been named PFA Young Player of the Year, and in each of the last two campaigns, he has broken the record for most assists by a defender in a single Premier League season – 12 in 2018-19, and 13 in 2019-20.
Those levels have dipped this term, of course. We are in April now, and Alexander-Arnold has just three league assists, the last of which came at Tottenham at the end of January.
There is mitigation of course. The effects of Covid-19, which he suffered with last summer, and the disruption of a calf injury sustained at Manchester City in November, has meant rhythm has been hard to come by.
The absence of Liverpool’s front-line centre-backs, and the knock-on effect that has had on Klopp’s midfield, has certainly not helped, either.
And yet when it comes to defenders, only Luke Shaw has created more chances in the Premier League this season, and only Aaron Cresswell and Andy Robertson have created more Opta-defined ‘big chances’.
Robertson, who has featured in every one of Liverpool’s 29 league matches, is the only defender who has had more touches or attempted more passes and crosses than Alexander-Arnold. Nobody comes close to the Merseysider when it comes to passes into the penalty area.
That’s the influence Alexander-Arnold has at Liverpool. That's how important he is, how pivotal to the Reds' whole way of playing.
It is easy to forget, given the speed and scale of his rise, that this is still an extremely young footballer we are talking about. He does not turn 23 until October, meaning he could have qualified for this year's Under-21 European Championship.
He is younger, in fact, than six of Aidy Boothroyd’s England squad for that tournament.
There is still a chance, of course, that he could force his way back into the senior side in time for this summer's European Championship. Plenty can happen between now and May, and the idea of UEFA allowing 25-man squads, rather than 23, can only help.
Sources close to the player say he took the disappointment (and the surprise) well. He supported his national team colleagues, both privately and on social media, and bears no ill-feeling towards Southgate even if, understandably, he disagrees with the manager's call.
He has not been short of backing from elsewhere. Steven Gerrard and Robbie Fowler were among those to come out in support of their fellow Scouser, while Ian Wright, a man with no Liverpool leanings, also expressed his surprise at Southgate’s “harsh” call.
Gerrard, who won more than 100 caps for his country, says he's world class. “He’s the best right-back the country has got," added the Rangers boss.
Now to prove it. England may not feel they need Alexander-Arnold right now, but Klopp and Liverpool most certainly do.
And if he's fired up to prove a few doubters wrong in the coming weeks, then the Reds can only benefit.