Welcome to the Alexander-Arnold culture war: Join us in the safe space
When Gareth Southgate omitted Trent Alexander-Arnold from his latest England squad, he probably didn’t expect to have kickstarted a chain of events that would lead to Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher calling each other “gobshite” in a car park on Instagram Live.
On Monday Night Football, English football’s two most high-profile pundits injected some helium to the hysteria currently surrounding Alexander-Arnold, screeching their way through a highly charged debate. With a tenacity more suited to PMQs than MNF, Carragher told Neville to “behave” before taking the argument outside, like two estate agents leaving their office Christmas party after ruining everyone’s evening by getting too competitive at beer pong.
Only making the whole thing more bizarre was the fact that both men were in agreement: Trent Alexander-Arnold should be in England’s squad for the summer’s European Championship. Neville, however, has a hunch – and it is literally just that, a feeling, a sense, a prediction, but no certainty – that Southgate will leave out the Liverpool right-back for fear of him potentially being exposed out of possession by the better teams.
Carragher was incredulous at such a suggestion, fairly pointing out that Alexander-Arnold has been defensively sound enough to win Champions League and Premier League titles, albeit slightly undermining his point by proposing that the 22-year-old’s ability on the ball make him well suited to coming off the bench in a midfield role.
All this culminated 24 hours later with a performance from Alexander-Arnold that proved both men right in Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.
Alexander-Arnold was far from the only Liverpool player to be off the pace in the first half, but Real Madrid were ruthless in capitalising on those frailties that now find themselves under microscopic scrutiny.
Real’s first was not a good look for Alexander-Arnold, as Vinicius Junior ghosted into the space between the full-back and his right-centre-back, Nathaniel Phillips. Neville had tried to defend him the previous night by highlighting how Andy Robertson has benefited from playing alongside the seniority and guidance of Virgil van Dijk (when fit), whereas TAA has never had a settled centre-half on his inside to build a relationship with.
In Madrid, he had Phillips, making his 13th senior Liverpool appearance, next to him. In front, where he has so often been able to rely on his captain Jordan Henderson, stood Naby Keita, whose performance was deemed so ineffective he was subbed off before half-time.
The goal also underlined the brutal efficiency of elite football; a laser-guided pass from Toni Kroos, a sublime piece of control from Vinicius, a goal down in a blink of an eye. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
• • • •
• • • •
Admittedly, there’s no looking past the second goal; you dropped a bollock there, Trent. That sound you can hear is Neville smugly sending Carragher his words from Monday night: “He has to become more serious about his defending.”
But Liverpool were a different team after the break, grabbing an early goal through Mo Salah and hinting that they might be able to complete a comeback. Alexander-Arnold was at the forefront of their resurgence. Minutes after Salah’s goal, he played the most aesthetically bewitching pass of the night, half-volleying the ball over Real’s defence and onto the head of Diogo Jota, who could only nod it wide.
Again, it was difficult not to think back to Monday night, but this time Carragher: “Ask Harry Kane who he’d want on the ball there. He’d want [Alexander-Arnold] there before any other England player.”
As the game became stretched, he then showed he’s not exactly Jan Kromkamp out of possession, cleverly halting a two-on-one by intercepting a Marco Asensio pass that would have left Vinicius through on goal.
Alexander-Arnold appeared to be rising to the occasion of his battle with Vinicius as the two players squared up on the touchline after a healthy shoulder-to-shoulder challenge. But the Brazilian had the last laugh, scoring with another blink-and-you’ve-missed-it finish before departing for the bench after buying a free-kick out of his opposite number by softly falling to the floor after being brushed by his arm.
A furious reaction to the assistant referee’s decision earned Alexander-Arnold a booking, summing up his last few weeks.
So what now? It is just over two weeks since The Times published a piece by Henry Winter headlined: ‘Trent Alexander-Arnold needed loyalty from Gareth Southgate – not a brutal axing.’
After Tuesday night, The Telegraph went with: ‘Trent Alexander-Arnold’s night to forget in Madrid could spell the end of his time as a Liverpool defender.’ (Albeit the scathing headline is deliberately cheeky, as writer Mike McGrath is suggesting that he “could be the next Philipp Lahm”, not that he should be sold.)
In the middle of this, it would be fascinating to know what the player at the middle of all this hysteria thinks himself. A couple of difficult afternoons facing Marcus Rashford aside, this is the first period of intense scrutiny Alexander-Arnold has faced in his career. The last thing he needs is to be the subject of two prominent middle-aged men squabbling away on social media and a broadcaster desperate for engagement.
He’s 22, has won the Champions League and Premier League, and is coming off the back of two consecutive years of supreme consistency. This is how football works; nothing lasts for ever, and that’s fine.
You don’t have to look far to see an example of how this is likely to play out. Kieran Trippier, one of the men currently ahead of Alexander-Arnold in the England pecking order, was bombed out by Tottenham a year after scoring in a World Cup semi-final, frazzled by an intense couple of seasons and the pressure of being in the spotlight.
Trippier is now back in the England squad and has a La Liga title in his sights. He’s even learned how to defend. It’s fine. If anything, it’s quite funny that the modern equivalent to debates about Glenn Hoddle, Matt Le Tissier and England’s inability to make the most of an alluring creative talent now centre around a bloody right-back. This could only happen under you, Gareth.
But no, the lines have been drawn. Welcome to the Trent Alexander-Arnold culture war. Now it’s time to pick your side. Are you Gary Neville or Jamie Carragher? Are you Gareth Southgate or Jurgen Klopp? Or are you with us, somewhere in the middle – or as we like to call it, the abyss?
By Rob Conlon