England: New Trent Alexander-Arnold role is show of tactical versatility from Gareth Southgate

England: New Trent Alexander-Arnold role is show of tactical versatility from Gareth Southgate

To give Gareth Southgate his dues, at no stage of his tenure has he ever left either side of the lobby short on ammunition.

To the doubters, this is a manager not quite astute enough to get over the line in the most important games; to those fully signed up, the man who has won more knockout matches than a dozen predecessors combined.

To the nays, the ball and chain keeping England's frightening attacking talent shackled; to the yays, at last, a manager shrewd enough to realise blood and thunder is seldom how international tournaments are won.

Slow to get the best from Phil Foden; swift to do so with teenage versions of Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka. Too loyal, for too long, to Harry Maguire; now you can see why.

And should, as looks likeliest two days out, Trent Alexander-Arnold get the nod to start Sunday's European Championship opener against Serbia in midfield, then good old Gareth will have done it again.

Trent Alexander-Arnold with Jude Bellingham (The FA via Getty Images)
Trent Alexander-Arnold with Jude Bellingham (The FA via Getty Images)

Is this the 53-year-old showing the tactical versatility required to find a place for one of the country's most gifted footballers in his side? Or making the mistake of so many of his forefathers in shoehorning talent into a box it does not fit? All that before you even get to the how, whether and why playing a defender in midfield actually makes England more adventurous.

Best instinct suggests it is the first of those options. For one, this is not a desperate plan cobbled together overnight.

Southgate first trialled the Alexander-Arnold in midfield against Andorra in 2021, long before Jurgen Klopp began to tinker with his role. He did likewise in qualifiers against North Macedonia and Malta this time last year and was hugely frustrated when injury closed the window for an acid test against better opposition — Belgium and Brazil — in March.

Nor is it as if there is a proven, home-run alternative being overlooked. Were a peak Kalvin Phillips or a younger Jordan Henderson available, Southgate would not be taking this ongoing experiment into a major tournament, but the rival contenders— Kobbie Mainoo, Conor Gallagher and Adam Wharton — all come with their own uncertainties and unknowns.

For Alexander-Arnold, a starting place in Gelsenkirchen would mark the high point of an international career that in six years has not yet taken off, stark in contrast to a club equivalent that had him marking Cristiano Ronaldo in a Champions League Final while still in his teens.

At 25, the Liverpool man still has only one cap for each year of life, fewer than Saka and Bellingham, who made their debuts two years later, and only two more than Jadon Sancho, who is younger and has not been picked since October 2021.

Ahead of the last European Championship, reports Alexander-Arnold would be left out of the squad entirely proved wide of the mark, but that they were believable, with England's right-back saturation at its peak, said a lot. A thigh injury would rule him out of that tournament in any case.

This time around, fitness is no concern — the only question as to whether Southgate is ready to take the plunge.