Champions League

Reds rising star Alexander-Arnold set for Parisian acid test

 • by James Piercy
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Both anecdotally and analytically, barring any desire from the players to leave, injuries or offers the club simply cannot refuse, Liverpool have both full-back positions nailed down for at least the next five years, maybe even beyond.

After a string of botched transfers in what is such a crucial area of the pitch, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have proven to be comprehensively Jürgen Klopp’s first choice pairing, offering natural balance and equal offensive and defensive qualities.

The Reds are a more fluid side, both when in possession and in terms of overall shape, when the pair start.

Robertson ranks seventh among Premier League full-backs for open play key passes per 90 (1.08), seventh for xA (0.15), 12th for successful take-ons (0.83) while both are in the top 10 for accurate passes (Robertson, fourth – 55.5, Alexander-Arnold, eighth – 45.2) and the latter is fifth for goal contribution (goals + assists) with 0.27.

What’s more, at 20 and 24, their ceiling is far from being reached. They should progress just as Liverpool do in returning, as is the plan, to becoming a major force in domestic and European football. In five years time, the likelihood is we’ll be discussing their remarkable longevity and consistency for the club.

They are not there yet, nor should they be expected to be, and Wednesday’s Champions League tie in Paris represents another test of their position among the world’s very best.

The equation for Liverpool is very simple; beat Paris Saint-Germain and they are into the last-16 of the competition. Having conquered the Ligue 1 champions 3-2 at Anfield, that is wholly conceivable, although there is the rather large caveat that PSG are a better team than they were in September.

Thomas Tuchel was only taking charge of PSG for the seventh time competitively that night as he needed some individual magic from Kylian Mbappé to restore some respectability to what was essentially a comprehensive defeat. Now, 19 games into his reign, the German coach is starting to leave his imprint on the team.

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The establishment of a back-three and wing-backs Juan Bernat and Thomas Meunier or Dani Alves has maintained PSG’s width while also allowing wide-forwards Neymar and Mbappé to concentrate on doing damage inside the penalty area, not just outside of it.

The fitness of that duo remains an area of conjecture but assuming they are both able to play, and Tuchel has implied they will be, it represents a mighty challenge for Robertson but mainly Alexander-Arnold, with the Scot the better defensive player.

Whisper it quietly but the 20-year-old hasn’t been quite as impactful as his breakthrough campaign last term and was ruthlessly shown up in Italy as Napoli relentlessly targeted his right-flank. It seems difficult to imagine that Tuchel, with the attacking weapons he has, will do anything differently.

One fundamental problem with Alexander-Arnold, and it’s a trend among many a young full-back, is that his eagerness to do something, make a play or contribute, means he can get dragged infield. He likes a tackle and/or to intercept possession which can often see him gamble.

His pace can get him out of trouble but as we saw at the Stadio San Paolo with the wrong matchup, it leaves him woefully out of position and Liverpool’s defence stretched. Neymar is exactly the sort of matchup that can achieve such a scenario for PSG.

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Again, the Brazilian may just not be that fit but even a 90% match-ready Neymar will prove a tricky combatant on the ball and Alexander-Arnold also has to be mindful of the overlapping runs of Bernat who is seventh for touches in the opposition box per 90 (3.14) and is 13th amonl;exander-g full-backs this season in the Champions League for open play key passes (1.42). Neymar can suck Alexander-Arnold in, with Bernat ghosting around the back.

Liverpool’s increased defensively steel, of course, leaves them less vulnerable to such an incident, and Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez are excellent cover defenders but, based on Alexander-Arnold’s performance at Napoli, it’s surely a tactic Tuchel will employ.

PSG have a midfield who can play and like to keep the ball, they aren’t a reactive team. Whether Tuchel goes with Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot or Julian Draxler, who has thrived under his countryman in a deeper role, they will look to pass it around the Reds.

Of course, Klopp’s gegenpress is the perfect antidote, as Pep Guardiola discovered last season, but if PSG get it right and maintain their patience, it’s the sort of scenario which draws the likes of Alexander-Arnold in, as he tries to force a ball recovery.

It’s all completely hypothetical and maybe Neymar doesn’t play, Liverpool score early and PSG return to their disjointed self but, as it stands, this is a huge examination of where Alexander-Arnold is as a defensive player.

He will have to curb his natural instincts of being drawn to the ball, hold his position and know when to attack and went to stay back. PSG will expect him to do the opposite, it’s down the 20-year-old to prove them wrong.

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