Arguably the biggest talking point of the last international window revolved around the omission of Trent Alexander-Arnold from the England squad.
Gareth Southgate’s explanation – that the Liverpool full-back was out of form – did not pass muster in many eyes. Sure, it has not been a vintage season for Alexander-Arnold (and, by extension, the Reds), much of the punditry argued, but even his dip was relative to the dizzyingly high standard he had set previously.
Punishing him for it by dropping him from the Three Lions felt then like he was paying too high a price; was Kieran Trippier, a player who served a 10-game ban, really in certifiably better form?
However, while the England manager’s explanation felt inadequate in the moment, Alexander-Arnold’s performance on Tuesday against Real Madrid proved there was merit to the decision in any case.
Southgate’s “form” excuse may have been tenuous, but the player himself served an ill-timed reminder that his flaws – such as they are – have never completely gone away.
Alexander-Arnold’s flaws exposed against Real Madrid
Under the bright lights of the Champions League, the 22-year-old harked back to darker days with the sort of defensive performance that it appeared he had left behind a long time ago. The chasing that Vinicius Jr gave the full-back on the night at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano was reminiscent of Marcus Rashford tearing him to shreds at Old Trafford back in 2018.
It seemed then like the template for getting at Liverpool was set that day: simply attack behind their full-backs. Initially, Jurgen Klopp mitigated this by occasionally fielding the more solid Joe Gomez at right-back for difficult matches, but Liverpool became so ruthless and efficient in all phases that it ceased to be much of a factor. In time, it also came to seem like Alexander-Arnold had learnt to handle himself in defensive situations.
Real Madrid’s opener saw Vinicius ghost in behind the Liverpool defence, control a Toni Kroos pass, and finish. Alexander-Arnold, who would have been expected to get around on the cover, was missing in action. The lead was doubled when he did manage to get himself in a good position defensively, only to inexplicably head the ball into the path of Marco Asensio.
It was precisely the sort of jittery, error-strewn performance that further inflames the discourse around him, especially as the Euros approach this summer. If the question of whether or not he should make the squad seemed ludicrous before, it certainly is less so now.
Why England can’t fully trust him
International football may lag club football in terms of overall quality, but it is its own peculiar beast. The unique circumstances – teams sequestered away, the absence of chemistry, the sheer weight of pressure – make for a heady mix, and do a far better job at laying faults bare.
Make no mistake about it: if England take Alexander-Arnold to the Euros, it will have been earned. He is, on his day, genuinely one of the best players in the world in his position. However, if he starts at right-back, every team will be targeting his zone.
At Liverpool and in Premier League football, it is a trade-off that is worth it for his ridiculous passing range from unusual angles. He provides a different key for unlocking stubborn opponents, and complements the Reds’ direct passing game. In return, the rest of the team (especially the midfield) is set up to provide support and cover for him.
At the international level, such support structures do not necessarily exist. For one thing, Southgate’s dalliance with a double pivot in midfield means the protection of one of the wide central midfielders (often provided by Jordan Henderson in Liverpool’s 4-3-3) would not be available.
The injury to the Reds’ skipper is a further complication and robs Alexander-Arnold of an important on-field relationship.
Southgate has a decision to make
In order to get effective use out of him internationally, especially against elite-level opposition, it would be necessary to fit the entire system around him. It is precisely this that makes him such a wildcard: going into a tournament as a manager, you prize players who can provide flexibility over those who need to be accommodated, especially if quality is a (semi-)common denominator.
The likes of Trippier and Kyle Walker may not offer the same breadth of incision by way of passing, but they do allow for more tactical adaptability, they are more dynamic and (especially the former) can cross with almost the same effectiveness.
In the end, Alexander-Arnold’s strengths are too niche and particular, and his flaws are a little too flagrantly obvious. That might be a cruel summary, and may even be a little simplistic, but it encapsulates his situation with the Three Lions quite nicely.