At the 2018 World Cup, when Kieran Trippier curled a free-kick beyond Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subašić, there was no question that he was the smart choice at right wing-back.
However, one year on, the form of Trent Alexander-Arnold – as well as Trippier’s own dip – has made us wonder how that was ever the case.
When you look at the previous clubs of Liverpool’s victorious Champions League squad – multiple players arrived from Southampton, one from Hull City and a couple from Schalke and Hoffenheim – it points to a smart and focused recruitment process.
The club might have needed a new right-back too, were it not for the development of their young academy product. And wow, has he developed.
Alexander-Arnold showed plenty of early promise, making his debut as an 18-year-old and scoring his first goal for the club in the win at Hoffenheim in a Champions League qualifier in 2017.
That goal, like Trippier’s against Croatia, came via a free-kick from just outside the box. And the curl and precision of that finish showed a level of confidence which marked the first time the wider football world started to think this kid was going to go a long way.
Of course, Liverpool fans knew this already.
At times, during the 2018-19 season, Alexander-Arnold has felt like the Dorian Gray to Trippier’s painting in the attic. As the Tottenham man’s presence on the field has become more grotesque and indefensible, his compatriot has never looked more at home on the biggest stage.
Alexander-Arnold played just 79 minutes for England at the World Cup, all of them in the dead rubber group game against Belgium, and 11 months on we’re left scratching our heads, wondering how the talent we watched in Liverpool’s victorious Champions League run was allowed to watch on from the sidelines.
It’s not even a question of retroactively trying to fit him into a back five rather than his usual back four, either. His role in Liverpool’s set-up – as well as that of Andy Robertson on the other flank – involves getting up and down the field in the manner of what you’d expect from a wing-back anyway.
While it’s true that a player can move on leaps and bounds over the course of a few months, it’s tough to look at Alexander-Arnold and wonder how England might have performed with him in the side, whether the exceptional talent would have been the step up he looks like now, or whether he would have affected the balance of the team.
England have had this sort of issue in the past, of course, albeit with more attacking players. It’s one thing bringing a teenager into the squad for a major tournament but quite another to rely on what might just be a purple patch to carry them through.
The same thing happened with Marcus Rashford in 2016 and, while the benefit of hindsight can impart obviousness on situations which were anything but clear-cut, it’s still so tempting to point at a situation and say “well, duh”.
When we look at Alexander-Arnold’s 2018-19 campaign, the go-to contribution will naturally be the quick-thinking to lay on Divock Origi’s crucial fourth goal against Barcelona.
It wasn’t just the sharp mind to instinctively deliver the ball into the path of the Belgian but also the assertiveness which put him in a position to do so in the first place.
Other 20-year-olds might step up to take set-pieces, but for many there will still be that level of imposter syndrome which imparts itself as an over-cautiousness, exaggerating their internal fear of failure.
Instead, in Alexander-Arnold’s case, we have a young man stepping up and telling those watching “this is my pitch”.
It didn’t matter that the defenders were Barcelona’s, or that it was a Champions League semi-final, or that it was a once-in-a-lifetime play that relied on the opposition letting their guard down for just a second. This was a man in control, with a focus that turned any potential distraction into a mere afterthought.
Perhaps the most important thing about his development, though, is that it has come both as the soloist and as part of the band.
The attacking contributions, from the assist against Barcelona to another goal against Watford in the Premier League, will never come at the expense of valuable defensive contributions and discipline.
If he is needed at the sharp end, he’ll offer himself up there, but Alexander-Arnold wouldn’t be on the pitch if he was just a winger masquerading as a full-back.
In Madrid, as Liverpool comfortably saw off Tottenham, Alexander-Arnold was part of the same solid back four to which he has belonged for the best part of two years, even if some of the other personnel have changed.
While Jürgen Klopp’s team have kept all manner of opponents pinned back by the threat of what their front three can do, this is made even scarier by the attributes of their defenders, both in pushing forward and recovering to cut out any counter. Alexander-Arnold isn’t just a threat from set pieces – he’s also part of a well-drilled unit that knows – collectively and individually – when to allow its component parts to break forth from the shell.
It arguably remains the case that Gareth Southgate was right to use Kieran Trippier ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold at the World Cup in Russia, and that only makes the current situation scarier. If the Liverpool defender can develop that much more in 12 months, imagine what his ceiling might be a year from now.