ASSESSING LIVERPOOL’S SQUAD: RIGHT BACKS
We are halfway into pre-season and just sixteen days away from the start of the 2021/2022 season. As such, we are going to take a look at the strength of the Liverpool squad and judge their readiness for all the challenges that lie ahead in what promises to be another enthralling season. Where there are gaps, we will point out and suggest possible closures.
We will run through the right back options in the Liverpool squad and assess the strength of the department. We took a look at the Goalkeeping department the other day, if you missed that article you can find it here:
ASSESSING LIVERPOOL’S SQUAD: GOALKEEPERS
“Its like having Kevin De Bruyne at Right Back.”
As it stands, there are two first team right backs in the squad; Trent Alexander-Arnold and Neco Williams. Beyond that, James Milner can also do a job there if required. There are constant reports of Neco Williams possibly leaving the club and Joe Gomez, together with Conor Bradley, being considered as adequate enough back up to eliminate the need for a new signing in the position. We will run through the pecking order and offer our thoughts on the merits of that particular rumour.
First choice right back Trent Alexander-Arnold joined the Liverpool Academy as a six year old. Born and bred in the city, Trent went on to captain the U16 and U18 teams under Pep Ljinders. It was also during his time in the academy that he converted from a central midfielder to a right-back, as it was the position that offered him the clearest path to the first team with there being no backup for Nathaniel Clyne following Jon Flanagan’s injury hell and subsequent departure.
Trent excelled in the new role and as a result of his rapid progression was selected as part of the first team squad by manager Brendan Rodgers for the team’s final pre-season friendly against Swindon Town ahead of the 2015/16 season. Trent made his unofficial debut for the club in a 2–1 win at the age of 16. He was given his professional debut by Jurgen Klopp on 25th October, 2016, starting in a 2–1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the fourth round of the EFL Cup. His performance earned him a spot in the EFL Cup Team of the Round.
He started in Liverpool’s next EFL Cup match later that month against Leeds United and was named Man of the Match for his performance after registering his first assist for the club. He then made his Premier League debut on 14 December, coming on as a late substitute in a 3–0 win over Middlesbrough, before making his first league start in a 1–1 draw away to Manchester United in January 2017, where he kept an in form Anthony Martial largely under wraps. Having made 12 appearances across all competitions (and providing 1 assist), he was named Liverpool’s Young Player of the Season. His star had just begun to rise.
In the buildup to the following season (2017–18), regular right-back, Nathaniel Clyne suffered a serious back injury which afforded Alexander-Arnold the opportunity to rotate with Joe Gomez during the early stages of the campaign. He scored his first goal for the club when he struck home from a free kick in a 2–1 first leg Champions League play-off round win over Hoffenheim. He scored his first Premier League goal for Liverpool on Boxing Day, netting in a 5–0 win over Swansea City at Anfield. The club’s trust in him was paying off. They could have easily dipped into the transfer market to find a replacement for the stricken Clyne but chose to go with their young talents in him and Joe Gomez.
In March of that season, Alexander-Arnold endured his most difficult spell with the club to date, after struggling against Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford in successive weeks. Nevertheless, he retained the trust of Jurgen Klopp and his position in Liverpool’s starting line-up to become the youngest English player to start in a Champions League quarter-final match. He performed strongly in a 3–0 win over English rivals Manchester City in April and was named Man of the Match. He earned praise from the media for his ability to nullify City winger Leroy Sané and his mentality to bounce back from a tough couple of weeks.
He won the Liverpool Young Player of the Season award for the second season running and became the youngest Liverpool player to start in a Champions League final when he was named in the starting line-up against Real Madrid. Tasked with marking the talismanic Cristiano Ronaldo, he performed admirably though Liverpool ultimately succumbed to a 3–1 defeat. Come the end of the season, he had scored three goals, provided 3 assists while creating 34 chances in 33 appearances across all competitions. He was nominated for the Golden Boy award where he finished runner-up to Ajax defender, Matthijs De Ligt.
He continued to enhance his burgeoning reputation in the season thereafter. Alexander-Arnold elevated his game further to become a playmaking right back. He became the youngest player, aged 20 years and 143 days, to record three assists in a single Premier League match when he set up three goals in a 5–0 win over Watford. His domestic form was rewarded later in April when he was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award. Although the award was won by Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, Trent was later named in the PFA Team Of The Year .
In May with Liverpool trailing Barcelona 3–0 on aggregate after a first-leg defeat (which Trent was cruelly benched for), he recorded two more assists, including “the best assist of his career” for Origi’s winning goal, to help the club to a 4–3 aggregate victory and progress to a second consecutive Champions League final. On the final day of the domestic season, Alexander-Arnold provided another assist to break the Premier League record for the most assists by a defender in a domestic campaign, with 12.
He then started in the Champions League final, putting in an assured showing against the dangerous Son Heung Min, as Liverpool clinched a 2–0 win over Tottenham. He was later named in the competition’s Team of the Season and nominated for the Defender of the Season award. He was now the best right back in world football. Quite the rise for the young Scouser. He finished 2019/20 with a personal record of 1 goal, 16 assists and 86 chances created in 40 appearances.
Alexander-Arnold began the 2019–20 campaign with his position as Liverpool’s right-back cemented, no longer was he rotated with Gomez, as his defending had come on in leaps and bounds. He was nominated for the 2019 Ballon d’or award, alongside six of his Liverpool teammates. He was voted as the 19th-best player in the world at the Ballon d’Or ceremony, and the highest-ranked full-back. Team success followed too as he played his part in Liverpool winning the UEFA Super Cup on penalties. Trent assumed responsibility to take and convert his penalty in the shootouts.
Upon returning from a successful FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar (where he came off the bench to provide the match winning assist in the semi final), Liverpool recorded a 4–0 league win over second-placed Leicester City in a match which Alexander-Arnold played a hand in all four goals by scoring one, assisting two, and winning a penalty which was converted by Milner. He was later rewarded for his form with the Premier League Player Of The Month award, becoming the first full-back to claim the honour since 2007. Further recognition followed at the turn of the year, when he was named in the 2019 UEFA Team of the Year.
Alexander-Arnold helped Liverpool win their first league title in 30 years, and their first in the Premier League era and with the title secured, he broke his own assist record on the penultimate day of the campaign when he set Firmino up to score in a 5–3 win over Chelsea. For his contributions during the season, he was awarded the inaugural Premier League Young Player of the Season award, won the PFA Young Player of the Year accolade and was named in the PFA Team of the Year. He finished with 4 goals, 15 assists and a whopping 118 chances created across 49 appearances.
Alexander-Arnold continued to feature prominently for Liverpool during the 2020–21 campaign and, on 9th December, became the youngest-ever player to captain the club in European competition, and third-youngest in any competition, when he donned the armband during the Reds’ 1–1 Champions League draw against FC Midtjylland. Later that month, he was named in the 2020 FIFA FIF-PRO Men’s World XI all the while Liverpool set about its domestic title defence by topping the league standings by Christmas.
However, both his and the club’s form waned in the second half of the campaign which culminated in Alexander-Arnold’s highly-publicised omission from Gareth Southgate’s England squad for March’s 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualification matches. As a result, his performances came under intense scrutiny and he was criticised for making defensive errors during Liverpool’s 3–1 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League. In the Premier League, his form improved and he was lauded for his game-winning performances against Arsenal and Aston Villa, providing an assist in the former fixture and scoring the winning goal in the 90th minute of the latter fixture.
Losing all the usual centre backs at the club didn’t help as Trent assumed more of a leadership role in the backline and had to adapt his game to make up for the inexperience of Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams. The most challenging season of his career till date and he still had some very good moments and underlying figures as he managed 2 goals, 9 assists and 105 chances created in 45 appearances. That summer, he was named in England’s squad for EURO 2020 but missed out on adding to his 1 goal in 13 caps after picking up a calf injury in the last warm up game.
Trent is a world class right back and rarely misses games though injury. 94 appearances across the past two campaigns speak of a player that stays fit for the most part. Still just aged 22, he is Liverpool’s most creative outlet, and if he can play another 40+ games this season, the club will be better for it.
20 year old Welsh international Neco Williams joined the Liverpool Academy at the age of six and progressed through the youth ranks, representing the club at U18, U19 and U23 level, as well as in the UEFA Youth League. He won the FA Youth Cup with the Academy and his form at youth level was rewarded when, on 30 October 2019, he made his debut for the senior side, starting in a 5–5 (5–4) penalty shoot out win over Arsenal in the EFL Cup.
He featured prominently in the match and recorded a last-minute assist for Divock Origi’s goal to send the match to penalties, where Liverpool emerged victorious. In December, he was included in Liverpool’s squad which won the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup, although he was an unused substitute in both games. Following the turn of the year, he starred in a team largely made up of teenagers and reserves that defeated Everton in the FA Cup 3rd round, and Shrewsbury Town in the 4th round replay, forcing an own goal in the latter fixture to secure his side’s progression in the competition.
His Premier League debut followed on 24 June 2020, shortly after the campaign resumed following a three-month long suspension caused by the Covid-19 Outbreak, when he featured as a 74th-minute substitute in a 4–0 win over Crystal Palace. Williams would go on to make enough appearances to secure his league winners’ medal, and a few weeks later signed a new long-term deal with the Reds. In his debut season, he made 11 appearances, providing two assists.
In the following season, Neco was heavily criticised for his performance as Liverpool beat Lincoln City 7-2. The criticism went overboard into online abuse and the youngster had to delete his social media. He knuckled down and worked on his craft though and was particularly solid when he stood in for Trent in a 3-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League. He made 14 appearances across all competitions, providing one assist and was named in the Wales squad for EURO 2020. He made a few cameos in the group stages before a disaster showing in the Round of 16 saw him gift Denmark a goal as Wales lost heavily and crashed out of the tournament.
Neco is a trier, he gives his all and tries to implement what he learns on the training ground. It’s never easy being understudy for someone who is genuinely world class and Neco has found it hard going at times. His Liverpool career has been a mixed bag so far. Should he stay at the club this summer, he can be an adequate backup provided he only comes in here and there to give Trent a breather. He isn’t someone you would be comfortable with starting 15 games in a row for example. He’s still only 20 and should continue to improve under the watchful eye of Jurgen Klopp. He has the talent required but just needs to smoothen out the rough edges in his game.
The 35 year old veteran added a new position to his kaleidoscope of versatility when he played the entire 2016/17 season at left back. He attacked the role with his usual gusto and was one of the best left backs in the country that season. He has played right back on occasion too, and should Neco Williams depart, will be entrusted to provide backup in the position. He has the crossing ability and creativity to do a job, as well as the defensive acumen but lacks the pace required, something Wilfried Zaha exposed in a 4-3 win at Anfield some years ago. Milner is reliable and will do his best, but making him first choice backup right back would mean one less body in midfield. Therefore, the only way that can fly, is if the club signs another midfielder to cover Gini’s abscence and Milner’s (should he be required at right back).
First of all, Joe Gomez is no longer a right back. Most young centre backs start out as full backs so they can learn the ropes, before they get trusted to go central. Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher is a typical example of this. Joe Gomez has paid his dues at full back. He broke into the Liverpool team at left back under Brendan Rodgers after his transfer from Charlton Athletic before an unfortunate ACL injury. Under Jurgen Klopp, he was often rotated with Trent Alexander-Arnold after injury put Nathaniel Clyne out for a year in 2017/18. In that season, Gomez was used at right back when Klopp wanted a ‘defender’ on that side. But since Trent Alexander-Arnold grew into the behemoth he now is, Gomez has been allowed to morph into the centre back he was born to be.
His partnership with Virgil Van Dijk broke club records for clean sheets and goals conceded in the title winning season and he has proven himself to be one of the best young centre backs in the world. He hasn’t featured at right back since two ill fated appearances in that role over two years ago. First was an away Premier League trip to Burnley on New Year’s Day where Gomez, chasing an overhit pass down the wing, was scythed down by Ben Mee. The crunching challenge broke his leg and put him out of action for four months. Upon his return, he was thrown straight into a semi final first leg against Barcelona at the Camp Nou as a right back. A poor and uncertain performance showed a player who was out of his comfort zone as Liverpool lost 3-0.
Since then, he hasn’t played in that position and it has been for the best. This is a non-starter in my humble opinion. The last thing he needs is to be bombing up and down the right wing risking another injury. He doesn’t have any noticeable creativity about him either, to step in for the most creative player we have. He simple has to stay at centre back.
The 18 year old Northern Irishman came to the notice of Liverpool fans when he was named as a potential cover for Trent Alexander-Arnold should Neco Williams move on. Bradley was a midfielder but has now been turned into an attacking right back. He made his unofficial debut for the club in a pre-season friendly against Stuttgart a week ago. He also earned an international cap some months ago against Malta. He is highly rated but has never actually been a regular for the U23s. He’s predominantly been with the U18 setup so it would be a wildly unrealistic burden to expect him to come in and cover the best right back in the world.
In conclusion, Liverpool look in good enough nick in the right back position should Neco Williams stay put. Should he move on though, there will need to be a new backup signed, or more realistically, a midfielder signed to replace the outgone Wijnaldum, which will then free James Milner to cover the position on a full time basis.
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