Trent Alexander-Arnold received praise to go with his recall from Gareth Southgate as the England boss hedged his bets for Euro 2020 by naming a 33-man provisional squad.
The Liverpool right-back could yet face exclusion agony when Southgate trims his list to 26 next week, but for now Alexander-Arnold is back in the England picture.
Once seen as a player who would hold down the right full-back berth for England for years to come, the 22-year-old was dramatically dropped from Southgate’s squad in March, with the head coach questioning his recent level of performance at club level.
Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier and Manchester City’s Kyle Walker – both title winners with their clubs this season – look to be ahead of Alexander-Arnold, who may be battling Chelsea’s Reece James for a place in the final group.
After a late-season surge to a Champions League place by Liverpool, helped by an improved Alexander-Arnold, the England head coach was left with a quandary.
“I could easily get drawn into individuals who might be in the 26, get myself in a mess,” said Southgate in a news conference following his squad announcement.
“People feel I have an obsession with right-backs. I see four good footballers. Trippier can play right-back or left-back, Trent can play right-back, wing-back. I think he can play in midfield.
“In the last few days I’ve seen Reece James play right in a three, at wing-back, in midfield. We’re going to a tournament and those sorts of flexible players that can fulfill different roles but are good footballers are going to be hugely important for us.
“We don’t know how it will play out with injuries, what our best systems will be with people available, we’ve got too many question marks.
“That will all become far clearer. We know what we’d like to do, we’ve got good contingencies in place.”
Southgate selected an expanded squad because of injury worries over the likes of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson, the captains of Manchester United and Liverpool. By including Alexander-Arnold, Southgate at least delays any criticism over his exclusion, and it may be that a space opens up for the attack-minded defender.
Alexander-Arnold is a slightly different flavour of defender to Southgate’s other options, as a player who had 13 assists in Liverpool’s 2019-20 title-winning campaign and seven in the league season just ended.
James has just two Premier League assists in 2020-21 and Walker only one, with the City defender creating just eight chances compared to the 77 set up by Alexander-Arnold. Trippier assisted on six goals in LaLiga, however.
James, Walker and Trippier are all well ahead of Alexander-Arnold in terms of dribble and tackle success rates, and Southgate can be expected to be aware of such factors.
Alexander-Arnold’s 2020-21 league dribble success rate stood at just 47.06 per cent, with Walker posting 53.33 per cent, James 65.38 per cent and Trippier 76 per cent.
In tackling success, Alexander-Arnold’s 58.93 per cent success rate was beaten by his three right-back rivals, who each scored at least 63 per cent, led by 65.52 per cent by Walker.
The Liverpool man’s attempted dribbles may at times have been high-tariff manoeuvres, given he regularly plays high up the field, but Alexander-Arnold loses possession at a rate that could give England problems. He gave up the ball 25.49 times on average per 90 minutes in 2020-21 league action, compared to 14.83 by James, 16.35 by Trippier and a mere 13.32 by Walker.
As Southgate toys with that big call, he must also decide whether Mason Greenwood, United’s 19-year-old forward, makes the cut.
Greenwood scored just seven Premier League goals at one every 261 minutes in 2020-21 but, after a strong end to the campaign, he has again caught the eye of England’s manager, who sent him home along with Phil Foden at the start of the season after a breach of COVID-19 protocol while on national team duty in Iceland.
“In terms of the past it is absolutely the past,” Southgate said. “Young people make mistakes, we move on from it, the same with Phil [Foden].
“He’s an absolutely outstanding finisher, no question about that.”