Unlocking Liverpool: Klopp needs the real Alexander-Arnold back for Man Utd showdown

Trent Alexander-Arnold Jurgen Klopp Anthony Martial Paul Pogba Liverpool GFX
The 22-year-old's form has been up and down this season but he should be backed to prove his doubters wrong at Anfield on Sunday

Trent Alexander-Arnold remembers vividly the moment he knew he was making his first Premier League start.

He was in a hotel, a mile or so from Old Trafford. Liverpool were playing Manchester United in three hours’ time, and Jurgen Klopp had a surprise for him.

Nathaniel Clyne, the Reds’ first-choice right-back, was injured. Alexander-Arnold, 18 and with just four senior outings to his name, was needed. Klopp looked him in the eye, told him he would be facing Anthony Martial and that Paul Pogba would likely drift to his side as well, and asked him a simple question.

“Are you ready?”

He was. The game finished 1-1, United snatching a point courtesy of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s late header, but Alexander-Arnold handled himself. He was raw and he was skinny, but he handled himself.

He was ready, alright.

Would you believe that was four years ago today? Alexander-Arnold has become a European, world and Premier League champion in that time; a full England international, the PFA Young Player of the Year, and one of the best full-backs on the planet.

Time really does fly when you’re having fun.

This weekend, of course, he faces Manchester United – Martial and Pogba included – once more.

And he does so with a point to prove, and some form to find.

Trent Alexander-Arnold Jurgen Klopp Liverpool GFX

It’s not been a vintage season so far, it has to be said. Not poor, by any stretch, just short of the remarkable standards he has set for himself since that breakthrough campaign in 2016-17.

Alexander-Arnold’s last appearance ended early, substituted as Liverpool chased the game at Southampton earlier this month. He left the field having given the ball away 38 times – more than any player has in any Premier League game this season.

A headline statistic, for sure, and one which was lapped up on social media – such is the modern way.

“That’s normal,” admitted Klopp. “We play football in public, and people are used to the level Trent showed over the last three or four years – since he started playing with us, pretty much.

“The game he played [at Southampton] was obviously not his best. He knows that, we know that, it’s clear.”

Of greater concern are the general trends. Alexander-Arnold remains integral to the way Liverpool play, but he is not performing at his best. His influence, for whatever reason, has waned this season.

The statistics speak for themselves.

In terms of assists, and more importantly chances created, Alexander-Arnold’s numbers have dropped this season. He has just two Premier League assists, and is creating (according to Opta) 1.85 chances per 90 minutes, compared with 2.47 last season.

He is playing more passes generally – 72.8 per 90 this term compared to 69.1 last season – but fewer are being played into the penalty area.

In terms of ‘big chances’ created, his figures have dropped from 0.51 per 90 to just 0.22 this time around. For context, the likes of Arthur Masuaku, George Baldock and Antonee Robinson are all ahead of him in that particular table.

Trent Alexander-Arnold John Arne Riise Liverpool GFX

“He’s not at his best,” John Arne Riise, the former Liverpool defender, tells Goal . “But you have to realise that this can happen. He’s still so young, and the career he’s had so far has been incredible.

“You can’t just expect a young player to go like that for 10 years non-stop, without having a dip.

“And at the same time, his style of play means that if it’s not his day, it looks bad. His game is about passing, creating, game-changing moments. So, when it doesn’t happen, everyone sees it, everyone knows he’s having a bad day.”

There is also, of course, the wider context to consider. This has not been a normal campaign for anyone, and certainly not for Alexander-Arnold.

His pre-season was disrupted by an injury, which kept him out of the training camp in Austria back in August, while Klopp has since let slip that he also suffered with coronavirus around that time.

Then, there was the calf injury, suffered in the 1-1 draw with Manchester City in November, that kept him out for a month, affecting his rhythm further.

And don’t forget Liverpool’s broader problems. The disruption to their line-up, particularly at centre-back and in midfield, has been huge, and the knock-on effects cannot and should not be underestimated.

Premier League Table GFX

In 19 appearances this season, Alexander-Arnold has played next to six different right-sided centre-backs. There’s been Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, of course, but also Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson.

Mo Salah has been pretty much a constant ahead of him but in terms of midfielders, he’s had Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita, Gini Wijnaldum, Curtis Jones, James Milner and Thiago Alcantara.

“That affects you,” says Riise. “When I played, I usually had Sami Hyypia next to me and I had Steven Gerrard in the midfield in front of me.

“I knew where they would be, when the ball would come, where they would move to and where I needed to be. It was automatic.

“If you don’t have that consistency, week in and week out, it’s hard because different players play different football. You need that understanding, those relationships.”

Liverpool hope their injury crisis is starting to ease. Matip should be back soon, Thiago is fit again after a knee injury and the presence of Milner, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri gives them some much-needed depth. Keita, too, is expected back this month, and the hope is that Diogo Jota is not too far behind.

All of which should help settle the champions after a below-par festive period, and all of which should help Alexander-Arnold as he searches for top form.

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“He’s now getting there,” Klopp told reporters earlier this month. “I think physically he is fine and now he has to find his top shape again. That will happen sooner rather than later.”

Liverpool will hope it happens this weekend. And for a young Scouser, there is no better fixture in which to shine.

Alexander-Arnold knows that better than anyone.