MARTIN SAMUEL: Why Trent Alexander-Arnold is no spare part… He’s not one of four right backs in Gareth Southgate’s squad, he’s one of four pure footballers
- Speculation remains that Trent Alexander-Arnold could be cut from squad
- But Gareth Southgate refuses to pigeon-hole players to exact positions
- Alexander-Arnold is not simply a right back and has plenty more to offer
- Southgate also has issues with 12 players involved in two European finals
- Find out the latest Euro 2020 news including fixtures, live action and results here.
England have right backs. The best nations have footballers. If there was one message to be taken from Gareth Southgate’s squad announcement on Tuesday, it was the need to evolve our thinking.
Not that this was a sermon. Southgate is too cute for that. Yet the debate around the inclusion of Kyle Walker, Kieran Tripper, Reece James and Trent Alexander-Arnold is increasingly framed as one of balance and positional overload, when it should be: why not?
Why shouldn’t Southgate find room in what will eventually be a 26-man group for four of the finest footballers in the country? Why should he think of them in limited, pigeon-holed roles, when they can bring so much more?
Gareth Southgate sees that Trent Alexander-Arnold is not limited simply as a ‘right-back’
The best nations prioritise selection of top quality players and look beyond position
It is Alexander-Arnold, left out of the previous England squad, who is seen as the spare part here. Speculation remains that he will be cut when this extended, preliminary selection is whittled down next week. Again, why?
Without going too far down the golden generation line, the key attribute of the players available to Southgate is that they are more than the sum of their parts. Even Harry Kane, as pure a goalscorer as exists, also has outstanding numbers as a goal creator.
Behind him are rows, plural, of midfielders who can play as forwards, forwards who can operate in midfield, wide men comfortable in the middle, centre-men happy on the flanks. They have progressed through Premier League academies on billiard-table pitches working with coaches who prize technique and hunger above all.
England’s first group opponents are Croatia and it was in Zagreb in 2006 that Ashley Cole, a brilliant international footballer, looked all at sea when asked to operate as a left wing-back by Steve McClaren.
That would not happen to Southgate’s right-back quartet – nor to Luke Shaw or Ben Chilwell on the left. Yet when Southgate spoke of options, of versatility, he was not talking a switch between systems while keeping essentially the same role.
The Liverpool star has incredible technical ability and offers Southgate plenty of options
He meant Walker moving to centre half, Trippier to left back, James and Alexander-Arnold to midfield. He was talking about picking a squad of footballers, the way Pep Guardiola sees his selections at Manchester City, the famous 11 midfielders who are his dream.
‘I don’t see it as an imbalance to have four right backs,’ argued Southgate. ‘We could play three at the back in one game and have one as a wing-back and the other as right centre half.
‘We could play one at right back, one at left back; we could play one in the middle of midfield, depending on injury. They are good footballers who deserve to be in the squad. They’re better than some of the other options we have in those alternate positions.
‘There is no doubt Trent, for instance, could play in midfield. That is how he came through at Liverpool’s academy, but the difficulty is he hasn’t had the opportunity to do that since those days. But he’s still a passer of the ball, with great vision. He’s a playmaker from right back now.
‘So why wouldn’t that lend itself at some stage to being in midfield? Equally, Jurgen Klopp gets fantastic performances out of him in the role he has, so why would he think of changing that? In the same way, Reece James played in midfield for Wigan and I was there when he slotted into that position for 35 minutes for Chelsea the other day, with no problem.
‘These boys are outstanding footballers. They can receive under pressure, they can find passes, they can create goals, they are modern, adaptable players, and hugely exciting.’
He added: ‘So it’s not so straightforward that if everyone is fit Trent misses out. I know everybody sees four right backs but I think there’s a lot more to all of these players. We’re preparing for nine games, including the friendlies. We need versatility, we need competition for places, we’re still unclear on certain injuries.
‘Trent’s in contention. People seem to think that I don’t believe Trent’s a good footballer. That isn’t the case. I’ve felt the need to communicate more with him than other players in the last few months, when his performances have been very good.
‘People don’t know about this, but that’s credit to Trent for keeping it to himself. He’s a very good footballer, there’s never been any doubt. We go from there.’
Southgate’s reluctance to pinpoint exactly why Alexander-Arnold did not make the cut last time stems from an unfortunate experience with Chris Smalling three years ago.
Explaining why Smalling had been left out of the squad, Southgate talked about wanting to play out from the back, and that Harry Maguire and John Stones were better suited to the tactic. ‘I went into coaching detail and that ended up with Chris getting a shellacking,’ explained Southgate. ‘So I’m never going to do that again.’
Southgate admits to having revealed too much in previous selection announcements
Southgate isn’t a fan of UEFA’s extended 26-man squad – too hard to keep everyone happy – but it does have one benefit. Instead of having to rigidly adhere to making plans around team shape it does allow coaches freedom to indulge pure talent.
Certainly, it would seem strange if a player with Alexander-Arnold’s ability could not make a final 26. For once, managers have the leeway to pick the best players, rather than the ones who fit best into the spaces available.
‘With 23 there are decisions about utility players, complicated decisions,’ Southgate added. ‘I think that’s part of the challenge, really, not just being able to shove everybody in. In many ways, the challenge this time comes with keeping 15 happy, which will be impossible.
‘The dynamic of the group has to be England first, name on the shirt after. We could really fall down if we don’t get that right. It’s derailed teams in the past, with those not playing draining energy from the others.
Jude Bellingham and the other youngsters in the squad will be hungry to play
‘I’ve seen it with England, and with other countries, too. We’ve got to make sure everyone comes away learning, improving, enjoying the experience with their mates. I left the World Cup in Japan in 2002 having not kicked a ball but I felt I’d played a part for the team.
‘I’d provided strong opposition for the forwards, I’d stopped Martin Keown kicking them when he had the hump. You’ve got to have a focus on more than the games. They’re young players, they’re ambitious, they want to play, they’re used to playing. We’ve got to be emotionally intelligent dealing with that.’
Yet Southgate’s problems are also unique. As well as injuries he has 12 players involved in two European finals across the next four days. He can’t even get an update on Maguire with Manchester United locked down and laser-focused in Gdansk.
Other situations are not what they seem, either. Jack Grealish has returned to the Aston Villa team, but Southgate revealed that does not make him tournament-ready. ‘It’s not that Grealish is a doubt, the issue is how much load he can take,’ he said.
Jack Grealish’s fitness remains a concern and Southgate is keeping tabs on him
‘He’s not able to train on consecutive days and he hasn’t had a high training load going into those matches. That brings an element of risk. It’s great that he’s got on to the pitch, but in some aspects Jordan Henderson may have more miles under the bonnet, even though he hasn’t played.
‘We don’t want to break the players. I don’t see Jack as an injury doubt – more where we can get to in two weeks in terms of 90 minutes, 90 minutes, 90 minutes. We risk breaking him. It was an overload injury. We can’t overload him again. We’ve got to manage him correctly.’
We’ll know more of that in two weeks. For now England have a young, positive squad, and a young, positive manager. And they have footballers. Make the most of this – it wasn’t always that way.
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