England at Euro 2024: Why Trent Alexander-Arnold might be Gareth Southgate's preferred midfield option - reporter notebook

football Sunday 16 June 2024 19:16, UK

England at Euro 2024: Why Trent Alexander-Arnold might be Gareth Southgate's preferred midfield option - reporter notebook

Trent Alexander-Arnold could be England's best solution to unlocking stubborn opposition defences in the early stages of Euro 2024.

It looks a straight toss-up between Liverpool's passing genius, and Chelsea's midfield powerhouse, Conor Gallagher, for a starting place in England's opening game against Serbia on Sunday.

Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham, barring injury, are guaranteed starters - the former to be the deepest-lying of the midfield three, the latter to be given free rein to roam and unlock defences.

Kobbie Mainoo, 19, and 20-year-old Adam Wharton, for all their undoubted talents, might have to be more patient for their first start in a major tournament.

It is clear that both Alexander-Arnold and Gallagher offer very different options. Gallagher may come into his own later in the tournament, should England progress to where they expect to, against stronger opposition - with his vital stamina levels and abilities going box-to-box, whether trying to regain possession, or drive England forward.

But in the group stages, England are likely to come up against some stubborn opposition, set up to nullify their obvious attacking threat. That's what Iceland did to such good effect at Wembley on Friday night - the classic low block, combined with an early goal to give them something to hold on to.

In the face of that nullifying defence, England were found wanting. They had only one shot on target in 90 minutes. The neat guile of Phil Foden, incisive directness of Cole Palmer, clever passing of Mainoo - all failed.

However, it was obvious England lacked width against Iceland, with three of the four wide players operating on the opposite wing to their natural foot: the right-footed Anthony Gordon on the left wing, left-footed Palmer on the right, two right-footed defenders in Kieran Tripper and Kyle Walker at full-back.

That inevitably meant England were a little narrow, relying on Foden and Palmer - who often drifted inside - to try to come up with an intricate pass through the defensive masses. It didn't work.

That is why Alexander-Arnold might well prove to be England's ace in the pack against Serbia.

The Liverpool man is England's best passer, best crosser, and naturally drifts wide right and whips in balls early for his offensive team-mates to attack. With those balls coming from deeper, with pace and bend, they can be very difficult to defend against too, if England aren't able to get players in behind the Serbian defence.

He also scored a quite brilliant volley against Bosnia and Herzegovina just over a week ago. Such is his ability.

Having played that whole game, the Liverpool man only played 25 minutes against Iceland. But if you look at his touch map for the first friendly, you can see how in that central midfield role, he still tended to find really good width on the right, from where he delivered some very dangerous crosses.

As well as scoring, he also created five other chances for his team-mates and made 102 passes with almost 90 per cent passing accuracy.

All of that explains why Southgate is seriously considering him for a starting place against Serbia in England's Euros opener.

But perhaps one of his most important statistics is the number of passes he played into Bosnia's box: 12 in 90 minutes. That is an extremely high number, and shows just how penetrative he is, how he is always looking for a forward pass, a pass that might create something for England.

Alexander-Arnold is still learning his way and refining his role in this England team. Southgate uses him in a different way to how Jurgen Klopp did for so many years. With Liverpool, he tends to play as an "inverted full-back", pushing into a right-sided midfield position when Liverpool have the ball, dropping into full-back when they don't.

With England, his position will be as a midfielder from the get-go. He will have Kyle Walker behind him, relieving him of that wide defensive responsibility in a back four. He is still learning, however, that he still has a host of defensive responsibilities as a pure-bred midfielder, and that will be Southgate's concern.

Does Alexander-Arnold's inclusion put more pressure on Rice to break up Serbian attacks? Is there a danger England could be outnumbered in midfield, when they don't have the ball?

With Alexander-Arnold, Gallagher and Mainoo all vying for one central midfield spot, England have an embarrassment of riches to choose from. None of those three are automatic starters in the way Rice and Bellingham are.

It is worth noting that, in beating Sweden emphatically 3-0 away in their last game, Serbia played 3-5-2. If they do so again, they would have an extra man in midfield against England. That too, could affect Southgate's choices.

But as things stand, Southgate seems to feel the Liverpool man is his best option for the Euros opener. England have only been in Germany for a short time; most of the key preparation and tactical analysis will come later this week, so that could yet change.

Sunday June 16 - Serbia vs England, Gelsenkirchen, kick-off 8pm

Thursday June 20 - Denmark vs England, Frankfurt, kick-off 5pm

Tuesday June 25 - England vs Slovenia, kick-off 8pm