Liverpool FC boss Jurgen Klopp had enough.
The criticism of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defending, which was background noise before last season’s Champions League Final, had become a regular part of the mainstream agenda.
So Klopp did what good managers do, he went on the offensive.
“The first thing you do if you judge a player, you think about his overall package – and the skillset he has for being influential in possession is mad for a right-back,” he told the media before Liverpool faced Brighton & Hove Albion.
“I don’t know if you ever saw a right-back like this where you think, ‘OK, passing here, passing there, switching side, crossing there, free-kicks, corners, all these kind of things, smart decisions, quick decisions.’ He’s an outstanding football player.”
But Klopp didn’t just want to highlight the positives, the Liverpool manager confronted attacks on Alexander-Arnolds defensive capabilities too.
“First part of the season, we, as a team, didn’t defend well. That’s the truth, we know that, we saw it,” he continued.
“As a defender, Trent is involved in that – but […] we, as a unit, didn’t defend well. That’s why defending is an art, if you want, because everything has to work together.
“Offensively, one skill, one guy makes a difference, goal. Defensively, one guy defends the whole pitch, not possible. So we need everybody involved and we were not good at that, that’s the truth – my responsibility.”
MORE FOR YOU
Unfortunately for Klopp, his efforts to deflect the individual criticism of the right back fell on deaf ears.
When Brighton raced to an early two-goal lead and left Anfield with a 3-3 draw it was Alexander-Arnold who was in the firing line once again.
Memes of the young Liverpudlian slumped on the floor flooded social media along with clips that supposedly highlighted his frailties.
But Klopp is right. The truth is Alexander-Arnold is being treated unfairly and making him a scapegoat for a team not quite at its best is a major mistake.
The other side of the coin
In many regards, the continued attacks on the 23-year-olds abilities are part of a long-established pattern with young talented English soccer players.
When an exciting homegrown prospect emerges, the British media hype machine whirs into gear praising the youngster to the heavens.
Alexander-Arnold’s emergence was greeted with the usual salivation from media pundits and online commentators quick to label him the ‘best right back in the world.’
But everyone knows plaudits become punishment if standards slip or a rough patch is encountered. The same voices who lauded the talent will eviscerate without a second thought.
An insight into the merciless calculation that goes into this was provided by media personality Piers Morgan in a documentary about the life of one of England’s most revered and then abused talents, Paul Gascoigne.
“I always love the mythical notion that there’s nothing newspapers like more than to build them up and knock ’em down,” says in a clip archive clip used in the series, “we build them up, they knock themselves down. And if they make the wrong choices then they pay the price of their fame.”
For Gascoigne, it was problems off the field that meant he never fulfilled his full potential.
Alexander-Arnold’s frailties are firmly on the pitch, but that’s why context and nuance are even more important when assessing his current shortcomings.
Becoming a right back at 17
The response to Jurgen Klopp’s statement that Alexander-Arnold’s skillset “is mad for a right-back” is simple; that’s because he isn’t one.
Unlike many other players who spend their formative years honing their skills for a specialized position on the pitch, the Liverpool star made the switch to fullback as a seventeen-year-old.
Before then, the youngster used his ample creativity to pull the strings in central midfield or ping in crosses from the right wing, he even dabbled as a ball-playing center-half.
But such areas are amongst the hardest for an untried youth prospect to break into, they are where clubs like Liverpool make their biggest investments.
Full-back, however, was not an area where the club was particularly blessed with talent, so the precocious youngster decided to adapt his game to where the opportunity lay.
The process wasn’t easy, former Liverpool youth team coach Neil Critchley has revealed how he used to put the youngster under severe pressure in training to see if he could handle playing in his new role.
“If the winger was getting success against him in training, we just used to keep giving him the ball,’ the trainer said, “some days I’d think, ‘I’ve got Trent here; he’s going to quit.’ And the next day he’d come back and it was as if he was like, ‘Right, I’ll show you.’”
This determination eventually led him to the first team where he went from strength to strength.
Alexander-Arnold’s rise has been meteoric, as one of the Premier League’s greatest ever right back’s Gary Neville pointed out his numbers are incredible.
“If you look at Trent’s stats in the last four seasons since 2018 [44 assists, 315 chances created] – that is absolutely obscene,” Neville said on Sky Sports Monday Night Football.
“Just to put that into perspective, I played 400 games in the Premier League and had 35 assists, he’s got 44 in his last four seasons at the age of 23. It is absolutely ridiculous. I cannot believe those numbers.”
The point the former Manchester United man went on to make was that when it came to defending he was still not completely there.
While Liverpool was dominant these flaws were less exposed, but the rough start to this season and the patchy form of his colleagues have meant his weaknesses have come to the fore more regularly.
His advice? Work at it, bite the bullet and put the hard yards on the training pitch as he did with Critchley years ago and if he does, even diehard Manchester United fan Neville admitted, he could be the greatest of all time.