Trent Alexander-Arnold hasn’t enjoyed a good start to the season but he can follow in the footsteps of one Liverpool legend to reignite his fortunes.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is an English, European and world champion. He has won every major honour on offer to him at club-level, becoming the youngest player to complete such a set in the process, competed in three Champions League finals and played for his country at the World Cup.
A former PFA Young Player of the Year, he has been named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year, voted for by his fellow professionals, three times in the past four years. Breaking records galore at Liverpool, his return of 61 assists for the Reds, with 58 of them coming in the past four seasons is extraordinary.
Make no mistake, he is one of the very best right-backs in the world. As Gary Neville said earlier this week, he could even establish himself as the greatest in the position ever.
As a result, it’s easy to forget that he is still only 24. Only celebrating his birthday on Friday, it’s remarkable to think he was still young enough to represent England at last year’s UEFA European Under-21 Championships.
Yet he hasn’t featured at such a level since March 2018 when he was only 19 years old. Instead, he was competing in a first Champions League final and a first World Cup when still just a teenager.
Having demonstrated such exemplary form since breaking into the Liverpool side back in 2016, the fact he is still so young and already achieved so much in the game is easily overlooked. As a result, the scrutiny over any loss of his elite form is most punishing, as he has found out the hard way during the opening weeks of the season.
Alexander-Arnold has always faced criticism regarding his defensive abilities. One of the most naturally-gifted offensive full-backs in modern football, it is so very human to instead focus on the negative.
“With him, you pick it out and analyse so easily. Our experts are sitting there and see, in this situation, it as a weakness,” Jurgen Klopp bemoaned earlier this month. “Honestly, I just don’t get it. I just don’t get that part of it.
“We just accept that a world class talent gets judged by the one thing he’s not as world class as in other things. If he wasn’t a good defender, he wouldn’t play.”
There is no escaping that Alexander-Arnold hasn’t been at his best this season. His critics will point to goals conceded in last season’s Champions League final loss to Real Madrid and meetings with the likes of Fulham, Manchester United, Napoli and Brighton & Hove Albion as further evidence to discredit the defender and knock him down.
Comments from England manager Gareth Southgate haven’t helped, with the Three Lions boss insisting Reece James, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker are all better ‘all-round’ players and deservedly sit ahead of him in the international pecking order. Fortunately for Alexander-Arnold, Klopp and his Liverpool teammates have his back and are in no doubt about his talent and abilities.
This recent blip in form won’t be what he is remembered for when his playing days come to an end. After all, having only just turned 24, he could easily remain one of the best right-backs in world football for the next 10 years at least.
But having taken a step in the right direction with his stunning free-kick in the victory over Rangers in midweek, if the right-back needs any further reassurance that such tough times will pass, he only needs look back at the Liverpool career of a previous ‘Scouser in the team’ to demonstrate just how quickly form can transform back.
Steven Gerrard was 22 when he endured the worst spell of his Liverpool career back in 2002. At the time he had enjoyed four seasons as a Reds regular, won the treble, competed in the Champions League, contested a Premier League title-race, been crowned PFA Young Player of the Year, included in the PFA Team of the Year and represented England at the European Championships. If not for injury, he would have played at a World Cup.
While younger than Alexander-Arnold is now, the legendary Liverpool captain had achieved less than the current right-back at the same points in their career. But when personal issues started to trouble Gerrard in 2002/03, his form completely fell apart.
“For some time, I’d been a moody b*****d. Tension between me and Gerard (Houllier) built and built,” he wrote in his 2006 autobiography. “When the boss took me off against Spurs at Anfield on 26 October, I snapped.
“Straight down the tunnel, no acknowledgement. Straight into the dressing-room, door slamming, boots flying, absolutely steaming. I hate being hooked, however rubbish I’m playing.
“For Christ’s sake, not in front of the Kop, where my mates are watching. When the fourth official holds up my number it feels like a judge passing a sentence. Game over.
“I have no control; I have to leave the pitch, and everyone stares. Not good enough today, Stevie lad. The humiliation kills me.
Storming past Gerard at Anfield p****d him off him big time. The boss immediately sent Doc Waller to come and get me. ‘No chance,’ I told the doc. ‘I’m staying here.’ Doc Waller caught the fury in my eyes and knew he would need an army to budge me.
“I was selfish, I knew that, but I just want to do my best for Liverpool and I can’t if the manager subs me. I stayed in the dressing room, alone with my anger.
“Gerard went mental and fined me. Even an apology couldn’t repair the damage. He put me on the bench against West Ham, and then subbed me at Middlesbrough. What a mess.”
There were mitigating circumstances for Gerrard’s loss of form, with his parents, who lived with him, in the process of separating. “The turmoil at home destroyed my game. My form hit a brick wall,” he admitted.
Before a Champions League trip to Basel, Houllier called Gerrard into his office at Melwood, determined to get to the bottom of the midfielder’s problems.
“I walked in to be confronted by Thommo (Phil Thompson), Sammy Lee, the goalkeeping coach Joe Corrigan and head scout Alex Miller, as well as Gerard,” Gerrard recalled. “Christ, they looked like a bloody firing squad standing there.
“Gerard opened up first: ‘What’s eating you, Steven? Is your family all right?’ I stared at the floor. I should have talked but I didn’t feel comfortable. Not in front of them all. My silence goaded them. One by one, they each got stuck into me. They hit me with so many questions, it was like being punched in the face time after time.
“‘You are not training well enough,’ said Thommo. ‘You are sulking around the place,’ Corrigan chipped in. ‘You are down, not yourself, always snarling, not happy,’ added Miller.
“Has it all gone to your head?’ Gerard asked. ‘Do you want to talk?’ said Sammy. ‘Have you got problems at home?’ The questions and criticisms kept coming, wave after wave. I was hanging around with the wrong people; I’d got too big for my boots.
“Question after question. What the f**k was going on? A goalie coach was having a go at me. A chief scout was laying into me. Fair enough if it were Sammy, Gerard or Phil. I could accept that. But this mass interrogation was all wrong.
“I can take criticism, but this was five grown men, pointing their fingers at me. Slaughtering me. Instead, I struggled to control my fists. I was that close to attacking them. ‘Have you lot finished?’ I finally said, and walked out the room.”
Despite such an exchange, Gerrard still started Liverpool’s next game as they travelled to Basel for a must-win Champions League group game. Hauled off at half-time in a 3-3 draw as they exited the competition, it would prove to be the lowlight of the midfielder’s Reds career.
Amazing, I started against Basel,” Gerrard recalled.” After the ruck with Gerard and his staff, I assumed I would be on the bench again. The boss played me in my favourite position, too, central midfield, but I was shocking.
“Not focused. Not involved. Not at the faces. Every pass I made went to a Basel player or into the crowd. I wasn’t running enough. I felt so detached, as if I was watching someone in a horror film.
“Gerard might just as well have put me in with the fans. Liverpool needed a big performance from me. We had to beat Basel to reach the knockout stages… With me off the pace, Basel grabbed a three-goal lead by half-time. And my night was about to get even worse.
“In the dressing room, I was scarcely through the door when Gerard shouted, ‘Steven, shower.’ That was it. Me off. F**k’s sake… Gerard had embarrassed me like that before, bringing me on and taking me off in the same game against Newcastle. That p****d me off no end. This was worse, far worse…
“‘Salif, I want you in central midfield where Steven was,’ Gerard said. Salif Diao? That made my subbing even more shaming. Even if I was playing a four out of 10, I could do what Diao did.
“In fairness to Salif, he did help turn the game round. Liverpool pulled three goals back through Danny (Murphy), Vladi (Smicer) and Michael (Owen), which made me look even worse…”
He continued: “We stopped the night in Basel. The next morning I got word Gerard had had a pop at me. The boss told journalists, ‘Once a player starts to believe everything that is written about him and thinks, ‘I am king of the world,’ there is difficulty and danger.’
“He went on to say that, ‘Gerrard’s having a terrible time. I have stuck by him but he just wasn’t good enough against Basel. We missed the good Steven Gerrard, the Steven Gerrard that we like.’
“Basically, Gerard questioned my commitment, suggesting I was a big-time Charlie who enjoyed the reflection of his own image. B*******. At the airport, I sought out Paul Joyce who I knew would have been at the press conference with Gerard…
“‘You’re not going to the like the papers in the morning, Stevie,’ he said. Christ. ‘Did Gerard really say all that s***e about me thinking I was the king of the world?’ I asked. ‘Yes.’
“I laughed then; and my mood lightened. I could breathe again. I could smile again. I could start playing football again. A couple of weeks later, as my form returned, Gerard referred to me again in a press conference. ‘We have missed him but the good Steven Gerrard is finally back.’
A month later Gerrard would be handed the captain’s armband against Sunderland in December 2002. The following season he would be handed it permanently, and the rest, as they say, is history as he led Liverpool to European and domestic glory, even if the Premier League remained elusive.
Admittedly Alexander-Arnold has hit nowhere near such a low as Gerrard once did, there is no suggestion that personal reasons could be behind his drop-off in form and Klopp would never manage the situation the same way as Houllier did 20 years ago.
But if the greatest player in Liverpool’s history can suffer such a decline before bouncing back stronger, there’s no reason to suggest Alexander-Arnold can’t launch a recovery of his own to make a mockery of his current doubters and critics. He’ll be hurting at his current form, like Gerrard was all those years ago, and Southgate’s comments are likely to have stung too.
The right-back has taken the first step, with his improved showing and goal against Rangers on Tuesday. With a World Cup place on the line, he has plenty to play for in the weeks ahead for both club and country.
Form is temporary, class is permanent. Alexander-Arnold will be on a one-man mission to prove the old saying right in the weeks ahead as, having already followed in Gerrard’s footsteps by breaking into the Liverpool team and winning trophies galore, he looks to follow his example once again.
With a plethora of winners’ medals in his collection and 237 appearances to his name, plenty more will follow in the years ahead. Already a Reds legend, even if his international manager doesn’t appreciate what he’s got, two months in 2022 certainly won’t affect Alexander-Arnold’s legacy.