Trent at wing-back: England have tried it 10 times already; it last worked in 2018

TRent Alexander-Arnold ponders his wing-back role v Hungary in 2022
TRent Alexander-Arnold ponders his wing-back role v Hungary in 2022

England’s potential switch to a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1 formation has once again got people excited about Trent Alexander-Arnold as a wing-back.

The simplistic thinking is that a player with his passing ability and defensive vulnerability should be suited to the role.

John Cross of the Daily Mirror told the BBC: “With Trent, what an option. He’s still the best deliverer of a ball and actually when it was beginning to be mooted [the formation change], I’m thinking in my head ‘wow, that would give England a great opportunity to get Trent on the pitch [and] maximise his delivery’, because he’s the best passer and deliverer of the ball in the squad.”

And Dean Saunders has described him as “the best right wing-back in the world”. It feels like the media has collectively forgotten that this has been tried many times before – seven times from the start and 10 times in total for England.

We look at those games and realise that it’s been six years since it’s actually been a success…

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June 2018: Started at RWB in a World Cup warm-up friendly win over Costa Rica as part of a defence also featuring Phil Jones. Making his England debut at just 19, Alexander-Arnold came off after 64 minutes to be replaced by Kieran Trippier. The usually enthusiastic Daniel Storey wrote on these pages that ‘Alexander-Arnold is apparently impervious to nerves, and slotted in for England like he slotted in for Liverpool: with disgusting ease’. Elsewhere, the Guardian noted that he ‘coped well’ and he was given 7s pretty much across the board in the national press.

June 2018: Started at RWB in the World Cup dead rubber with Belgium as Trippier was one of several players given a rest. England lost but Alexander-Arnold fared well with the Guardian calling him ‘industrious down the right wing’, while the Telegraph said the ‘teenager was the one England player to enhance his reputation’.


September 2018: Started at RWB in a friendly v Switzerland that England won 1-0 but Storey was not impressed, writing: ‘I think it’s fair to say that Liverpool get more from Alexander-Arnold than England. That’s partly because Alexander-Arnold has such an emotional connection at club level, but also because he has more responsibility. For England, Alexander-Arnold is expected to play more as a regulation full-back than wing-back and that was particularly evident on Tuesday given Rose’s adventure on the left. Rose created three times as many chances and attempted double the number of crosses. So-so, but given Alexander-Arnold’s rapid rise over the last 12 months there can be no stinging criticism.’ According to the Daily Mail, he was worth 6.5 and was ‘a lively threat on the right’.

October 2018: Came on at RWB in the 86th minute of a 3-2 Nations League win over Spain and Matt Stead noted only that he ‘should have come on sooner’.

September 2020: Started at RWB in a plodding 0-0 Nations League draw with Denmark and it was something akin to a disaster, with Steady writing: ‘England have thus far resisted the temptation to emulate Liverpool in building their entire system around Alexander-Arnold and it really does show in his displays. He looked defensively suspect on a handful of occasions and suffered for such a plodding overall approach. One of the best outlets in all of the Premier League did not find a teammate with a single cross, and often struggled to reach a white shirt with simple five-yard passes.’

Friend of F365 Adam Bate of Sky Sports wrote presciently: ‘The wing-back role was thought likely to suit him by freeing him up to do what he does best, but the Liverpool man was unable to get much going down the right side. The deeper starting position might be the more effective way of getting the best from him, after all.’

October 2020: Started at RWB in a Nations League win over Belgium and Steady really put the boot in, writing: ‘The wait for one of England’s most gifted players to produce a good performance for his country goes on. Alexander-Arnold retains that same creative freedom he enjoys for Liverpool but without anything close to the inventive brilliance that defines him at club level. His passing accuracy (64.7%) was easily the lowest of any player for either side as his many risks resulted in almost no reward. The one positive moment he could claim a part in was Mount’s goal and even then his deep cross was salvaged by Trippier. Combined with a non-existent impact in defence, the 21-year-old managed to be the worst of 427 right-backs on the pitch despite playing the closest to that position of anyone.’

The Telegraph gave him 5/10 and said he was ‘unable to bomb forward’, while the Mirror’s John Cross awarded him 7 and said: ‘Good going forward, decent understanding with Walker. He’s the future.’ Sky Sports split the difference with a 6, noting that he ‘struggled defensively, particularly in the first half, when Belgium appeared to target his flank’. He was replaced by Reece James late in the game and would not play for England again until…

June 2021: Started at RB v Austria in a 1-0 friendly win but switched to RWB later in the game, with Steady noting that it was ‘not the statement display that was required after months of tiresome discourse during which he performed exceptionally for his club’ and said he ‘faded in terms of his attacking output after half an hour’. The Guardian gave him 6/10 and said his ‘passing lacked accuracy’ while the Evening Standard plumped for 7, saying he ‘got forward well but a couple of Austria openings came down his flank’.

November 2021: Came on at RWB in the 77th minute for Reece James in a 5-0 World Cup qualifying win over Albania, with Ian King noting on F365: ‘Seemed to be struggling to get into attacking positions, but did have one late shot on goal blocked. It should also be added that 13 minutes isn’t very long to prove yourself.’ So he got longer three days later…

November 2021: Started at RWB in a 10-0 qualifying win over San Marino in which he claimed three assists. Will Ford had written that ‘he had that freedom in San Marino and did very little with it, dribbling into people, crossing to no-one and just generally not doing an awful lot’ but then those three assists changed the picture somewhat. That was echoed by the Guardian‘s rating of 6 as they said he ‘rushed in possession at first, but he eventually found his range and made three goals’.

June 2022: Started at RWB in a 1-0 Nations League defeat to Hungary in which he was replaced after 62 minutes by Reece James. We noted on these pages: ‘While Trent Alexander-Arnold still looks like as much of a threat as anybody in those wide attacking positions, there was an early reminder of the lapse of concentration that cost Liverpool in the Champions League when Nagy seemed to evade his attention and had a shot go wide.’ The Telegraph awarded him 6 and said: ‘Usual energetic attacking display although susceptible to the ball over him because of that.’

Sky Sports gave him a 5 and wrote: ‘A game too far and yet a game that could have many consequences. That the Liverpool full-back wore the No 7 shirt in some ways encapsulates the Trent complex. He has seldom been trusted under Southgate to play in his natural position at club level.’

His next England start would come a year later in central midfield and he has since played in either central midfield or at right-back. Meanwhile, England have not started any game with a back three since a 3-3 Nations League draw with Germany in September 2022.

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