Early winner: TAA, the lopsided Liverpool ‘heartbeat’

Will Ford
Trent Alexander-Arnold

Liverpool don’t need a new ‘heartbeat’. They’ve got one, he just happens to play at right-back.

 

A report in June claimed Jurgen Klopp was ‘planning to change the Liverpool system’ this season. He was said to want Thiago to be ‘the heartbeat of the team’, while we put Youri Tielemans forward as a potential addition to enact that role.

Shortly after half-time at Anfield on Saturday, Harvey Elliott got in behind the Burnley midfield after a neat ball through the lines. He had around 20 yards of space between him and the opposition back four, but instead of driving forward with the ball at his feet, he attempted a pass, while off balance, out to the right towards Alexander-Arnold. It wasn’t really on.

Perhaps Alexander-Arnold is abusing his mentoring role to condition Elliott into feeding him the ball no matter what, but Naby Keita and Diogo Jota were also guilty of forcing it through to the Liverpool right-back, with better placed options available.

A huge proportion of attacks came down the right. Elliott – who was very impressive on his first Premier League start – drifted towards that side from his attacking midfield role and Salah was typically brilliant, running behind and cutting in. But almost everything went through Alexander-Arnold. It was almost as though his teammates felt as though he needed to be involved for them to score a goal.

Kostas Tsimikas clearly didn’t get that memo, producing a cross his full-back counterpart would have been proud of to find Jota to open the scoring. But Alexander-Arnold had 101 touches to his 65 and was the primary source of danger throughout.

Jota Mane Keita

His crossing from the touchline was on point, the speed and accuracy of his passing into midfield was magnificent and he capped a wonderful attacking display with a beautifully delicate assist for Sadio Mane.

The clipped ball round the corner itself was delightful, but his run inside Elliott to find space was a thinking footballer’s move, and that, combined with the glance over his shoulder to see where Mane was before the ball arrived was – dare I say it – Steven Gerrard-esque.

My reticence is not in comparing Alexander-Arnold to Gerrard in terms of ability – they’re both in the very top bracket of Reds players in Premier League history – it’s more that it was the sort of moment and the sort of game that invariably leads people to ponder whether he should be playing in midfield.

And this apparent desire from Klopp to change the system – to play through midfield as well as down the sides – may strengthen claims for Alexander-Arnold to move into a central role, particularly if they don’t sign another midfielder before the deadline.

But that of course means their primary method of attack, which has brought such success, would suffer dramatically. There is perhaps no greater drop in quality between the first option and the backup at Liverpool – Neco Williams is good, but Alexander-Arnold is extraordinary. His absence from that right-back berth would cause far more problems than playing him in midfield would solve.

The defensive frailty remains. Dwight McNeil got the better of him on at least three occasions and he has a tendency to dive in when the ball isn’t quite there to win. It’s something Jurgen Klopp is understandably willing to accept given the huge threat he offers going forward, but it’s not the sort of defensive foible that, if remedied, will hamper those attacking pursuits. There’s no excuse for it.

There is very little difference in the football Liverpool are playing. Elliott gives their midfield a slightly greater attacking edge, but otherwise, it’s the same system and ploy as last season. At some point it won’t work and that’s when they need a plan B that has been missing for some time.

Then they might need to pick holes through midfield, but for now they need not change a thing. Because they do have a ‘heartbeat’, he just happens to play at right-back.