JAMIE Carragher had the right idea, but the wrong footballer. Local players are expected to lead, the pundit said. They bear an additional burden for being plucked from the neighbouring streets. It’s more than pride. They’re playing for their postcode.
Marcus Rashford didn’t do that for Manchester United on Saturday, making it difficult for Carragher to conceal his disgust. But a day later, Trent Alexander-Arnold did just that, epitomising Carragher’s words. It has to mean more for the local boy. It has to.
Perhaps it’s nit-picking to apply Carragher’s argument to a different player, but Alexander-Arnold has long been the chosen one for nit-picking bores. He really is the go-to guy for those with a knack of stating the bleeding obvious, starting every sentence with a "yeah, but" and making them sound like a cross between a petulant teenager and Gareth Southgate.
That Alexander-Arnold, what a once-in-a-generational talent, eh? Yeah, but he doesn’t defend properly… Is there a better quarterback in the game? Yeah, but he’s a right-back… Did you see the way he effectively defeated Fulham by himself with a couple of astounding strikes and DHL-levels of distribution? Yeah, but one of Fulham’s goals came down his side.
Why do we do this to ourselves? We insist that football should be elevated to a level of artistry reserved for theatre stages and gallery exhibitions, but then bemoan the artists for daring to scribble as they please. Had the recent Van Gogh exhibition at Sentosa been filled with football bores, they’d have complained about too many dazzling blues and yellows. Why didn’t the mad Dutchman just knock out staid portraits like other, less talented peers? Stay in your lane, you anarchic freaks.
So to pacify them, briefly, let’s address the Gareth Southgate School of Thought. Yes, Fulham’s first goal came down Liverpool’s right side. Alexander-Arnold’s side. Never mind that Joel Matip had just displayed the kind of touch usually associated with toddlers dipping a toe in the ocean for the first time, Antonee Robinson was allowed to break free because Alexander-Arnold wasn’t there. Liverpool’s right-back was in the middle, not closing down goal-scorer Harry Wilson.
The nit-pickers had another one for their TAA wall of shame. The defensive maverick, AWOL once more and lacking the discipline of full-backs ahead of him in England’s pecking order. Southgate, the Three Lions manager, appeared vindicated. Again.
Or he was until Jurgen Klopp, the winner of every trophy in club football, reshuffled to accommodate his agent of chaos. His Joker. Alexander-Arnold was moved into central midfield. Joe Gomez went in at right-back. Cody Gakpo joined Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool pressed harder and Alexander-Arnold scored that delirious winner.
This football lark is easy, eh?
TAA is the footballer in the playground
Of course not. That’s the point, the sweet spot that brings a wry smile to the devilish German on the touchline. Football isn’t always clean lines and incisive runners, not for Klopp anyway. If it was, the Reds’ deepest midfielder would have been in no position to smash in that “worldie”. But Alexis Mac Allister ventured forward because Klopp doesn’t repress. He releases.
He cannot contain a talent like Alexander-Arnold, so why bother trying? Despite the contrary efforts of Southgate, Klopp effectively built the Reds around his architect-in-chief against Fulham in the second-half. Southgate has long struggled to find space for the right-back on the England bench.
And that’s not a criticism of the Three Lions manager, as such, but part of a broader, philosophical discussion about the game’s underlying purpose. It’s to win, obviously, but it also has to be an accommodation of talents, expectations and hopes, surely.
Carragher once said that no kid grows up wanting to be Gary Neville, a joke that both men agreed with. But kids do grow up wanting to be Trent Alexander-Arnold, a local lad with a Cantona-esque flair for breaking the mould to take risks, make passes that others cannot make and speak to that child-like voice in all of us.
Alexander-Arnold is why we played as a kid and why we watch now. He remains the footballer in the playground; gifted, hazardous and free. And that’s why his paternal club manager understands him so well. Heavy-metal football begins on the playground, like a scattering of marbles within a confined space. It’s messy, noisy and often unpredictable, but does football really get any better than that?
Naturally, such an effervescent package fizzes and spills in different directions. It’s hard to control. Klopp’s genius lies not in the execution of his relentless pressing, but the evolution. So many moving parts require constant adjustments. Klopp tweaked his line-up and formation twice against Fulham to address a performance that was fluid and occasionally reckless. But Alexander-Arnold remained a constant, both unstoppable force and immovable object as the Reds swirled around him. And for him.
And that’s what really sets both men apart. They serve each other. Klopp has marvelled at Alexander-Arnold’s unique abilities since the 25-year-old was a teenager and Alexander-Arnold revels in the unwavering trust that he doesn’t always get from the pub bores and the England camp. For the Liverpool manager and his maverick, their football is not a risk. It’s a way of life.
And it feels contagious, too. Ange Postecoglou earned a glorious point with Tottenham’s high-wire act at Manchester City as a certain tactical and personnel bravery takes hold among the trophy chasers. Alexander-Arnold used to be an outlier. He’s beginning to look like a pioneer.
Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but what other type should there be in football? We come to be captivated, to see Alexander-Arnold take free-kicks like that, to smash in winners like that, to inspire his local community like that. He’s everything this crazy game is supposed to be. He’s painting in the boldest colours. Just let him shine.
We come to be captivated, to see Alexander-Arnold take free-kicks like that, to smash in winners like that, to inspire his local community like that. He’s everything this crazy game is supposed to be. He’s painting in the boldest colours. Just let him shine.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.
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