The Anfield faithful will be expecting several new arrivals this summer, but one position Liverpool don’t appear to be looking to strengthen is at right back but this doesn’t mean that this season’s mainstay, Nathaniel Clyne, should still be lining up there for the Reds in 2017/18.
A storm is brewing on the right of Liverpool’s rearguard and boss Jurgen Klopp will have a big call to make in pre-season. Young West Derby upstart Trent Alexander-Arnold (or TAA as I will refer to him) has come up on the rails, offering Reds fans the possibility of seeing one of their own back as a regular in the side, perhaps even a little earlier than expected after the departures of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard in recent seasons. Whether at right back or in midfield, TAA looks like the bright young hope of Liverpool’s future.
In fact, I’m about to argue that ‘Trent’s Time’ is now. But first, a look at the incumbent.
England squad regular Clyne has been an ever-present in the league this season, making 36 appearances so far and only missing one solitary game. Such durability should not be undervalued in the modern game, and his physical ability has never been in question.
Nor have his defensive abilities either, opposing wingers rarely getting much change out of a player who, this season, according to Premier League stats, has a tackle success rate of 76% and only made one error leading to a goal – counterpart James Milner has a tackle sucess of 67%, and England rival Kyle Walker 71%.
A closer look at some of Clyne’s other numbers tells a different story, however. Almost unbelievably for a defender, he has picked up zero yellow (or red) cards this season. Now, accumulating cards is clearly no real indicator of quality, but does suggest a lack of aggression that is also evident in some of Clyne’s attacking stats.
The right back is yet to score this season, and has also only returned two assists. The aforementioned Walker has contributed five, along with 111 accurate long balls (Milner has 130); compared with Clyne’s meagre 43.
Putting stats aside, Clyne also does not pass ‘the eye test’, almost as soon as he crosses the halfway line. A sense of impending doom seems to descend on him, and whereas he is confident and decisive in defence, he is suddenly clouded with hesitance and uncertainty.
All too often Liverpool fans have let out a collective sigh as, rather than take his man on, Clyne stops and turns, eager to dump the ball off to his nearest teammate as quickly as possible. In occasional moments of exception he will attempt a cross – invariably floated into the box and cleared effortlessly by an opposing centre back, or collected harmlessly by the keeper.
Clyne’s offensive deficiencies, and Milner’s on the other side, are a large factor in Liverpool’s attacking struggles since the turn of the year, as I covered in another piece for Read Liverpool last week (no need to thank me for tempting fate and heralding a 4-0 thumping after writing that!). Teams only have to defend the middle against the Reds, confident in the knowledge that in the absence of Sadio Mane, little danger will come down the flanks from either full back.
Simply put, a Jurgen Klopp side needs more in the other half of the pitch from the full back positions. Playing against packed defences, as Liverpool do more often than not, demands more of the full backs in attacking terms than defending. Destruction is valued above dependability. The boss himself has said of the modern full back:
“This kind of full-back now is much more of a midfield player. The kind of football they play, in halfspaces, they are the other winger sometimes, the central midfielder sometimes.
“The rule is: be an option, get the pass or be available for other players.”
Anyone who has watched Trent Alexander-Arnold at the younger levels cannot fail to have been excited by the quality of some of the goals he has scored (as recently as last week). His delivery into the box is noticeably more purposeful than that of Clyne, and his attacking skills are arguably helped by also playing as a midfielder/winger.
TAA’s goalscoring record is also markedly different to that of his rival. A phenomenal seven goals in only eight England under-19 appearances demonstrates his eye for goal; and in 11 youth games this season he has contributed three goals and four assists.
By contrast, in over 300 appearances at club and all levels for England, Clyne has only netted four times.
Defensively, given his youth, TAA will inevitably endure some trials along the way. He still has some filling out to do physically, and adding a few pounds of muscle over the summer should be a priority. However, he is clearly the future, and Klopp needs to see what he has in him sooner rather than later.
With European football on the horizon, there will be games for both he and Clyne. The prospect of TAA’s pace and verve opening up the likes of Burnley, Crystal Palace, and Southampton, all of whom Liverpool had trouble against this season will surely prove too tempting to resist, now that he has had a season with the seniors to settle in.
It is hard not to admit a certain sense of deja vu at the last time a talented, young, Scouse midfielder broke through the ranks, and despite more experienced options being available, started off as a right back at senior level. If Trent Alexander-Arnold comes anywhere close to being as good as Liverpool’s famous number 8, he will be some player.