What Makes Liverpool's Fullbacks so Good?
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson.
Breathtaking crossers. Brilliant passers. Competent Dribblers. Extraordinary tactical intelligence. Fast & quick.
Not usually words used to describe two fullbacks.
The archetypal fullback is one that can ‘stop the crosses’ and ‘not be beaten in the 1v1’. They are players who after successfully passing the ball forward, feel that their job is done.
But the fearsome Liverpool duo are far from ‘normal’ fullbacks. They are the primary creators in the Merseyside Machine, supplying assists, starting attacks, and providing the width to Liverpool’s side.
Without them, Liverpool would not be the almost-unstoppable force that they are. In terms of end product, Alexander-Arnold in particular is simply sensational. He contributes to a goal almost every other game, with 2 goals and 12 assists in just 29 games in the Premier League.
Perhaps the most comparable player to the young English fullback is someone who may surprise you - Kevin De Bruyne. On the surface, it may seem absurd - a right back and a central attacking midfielder having the same impact on their team?
But if you look closely you will see that they share a similar heatmap, perform roughly the same amount of defensive actions per 90, and are equally important to their teams’ chance creation and progression of the ball.
If you watch Kevin De Bruyne play, you will often be mesmerised by his exquisite touch, proficient dribbling, and frankly mind-blowing passes. Watch a little closer, and you will realise that those astonishing passes are just as much the product of his movement to certain spaces as it is to his technical ability.
This movement is generally to a place called the half-space. De Bruyne produces defence-splitting passes in this area. Alexander-Arnold does too.
The half-space has become invaluable over the past few years as the most dangerous area on the pitch in Football in terms of creating chances and scoring goals.
It's quite simple really: the ultimate aim of Football is to outscore your opponents and win the game. So when looking at which zone one should attack, the central one immediately comes to mind; you can shoot, pass in any direction, and have a full view of the pitch, making it the most dangerous zone. However, as a result of this, it is also the most crowded, with more players attacking and defending this same zone. Other zones include the wings, but in terms of effectiveness in scoring and creating chances, it is quite sterile, as when the ball is there, fewer options are available, and the player on the ball becomes very predictable, with often only two viable options in any situation on the pitch. The advantage that the wing does offer over the central zone of the pitch is that it has far fewer players, thus resulting in more space and time.
Then comes the half-space. The sweet spot, a mixture of the wing and the central zone. It is situated directly in between these zones, and combines the best of both worlds: it is less crowded than the central zone but is still close enough to goal to be dangerous.
Great managers like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are the biggest proponents of the use of this area, as is evident in their chief creators' movement to that space, Kevin De Bruyne, and Trent Alexander-Arnold respectively.
But the question remains.
Why are Liverpool’s fullbacks so efficient in attack, and why are they even tasked with this job in the first place?
The answer is not that simple. Robertson is the more traditional fullback, operating mostly on the left flank, bombing up and down the wing, and staying solid in the 1v1. Alexander-Arnold is almost like a deep-lying wide-playmaker, evolving from his debut campaign, where he mostly tried to go down the line and whip a cross in. His passes per game have gone up significantly, from an average of 53 in 17/18 to 67.5 in 19/20. This is down to how he has matured, being more confident and composed on the ball, often dictating Liverpool’s attacks from the wide-midfield position.
One play that often occurs is when Salah makes a deep run in behind, before Trent pings a perfect ball to him, a product of his remarkable passing range. However, when Salah makes the run Alexander-Arnold does not always play it to him. The run opens up a gap for Firmino to drop and receive, and where most fullbacks would shy away from having to play a risky driven pass 40 yards ahead, he does it with arrowing precision, almost never missing the target and almost always starting a dangerous Liverpool attack.
Another play is when the opposition team presses the ball going out wide, as it is a trigger for them. This puts Trent under pressure, but his superb technical ability allows him to play a raking diagonal to Robertson, who now has the whole pitch to himself to run into with his rapid pace.
Liverpool's Attacking Sequences involving TAA
But Trent Alexander-Arnold’s qualities shine through when in the Attacking 3rd. Oftentimes Salah will tuck in, dragging his marker with him, creating an unmarked zone in the deep half-space for Trent to drive forward to and whip a cross into the box.
In conclusion, Liverpool’s fullbacks are a key cog of their side, contributing decently in defence, and outrageously in attack. They are the instigators of their teams’ many forward forays and create a number of assists that would put many world-class attackers to shame.
Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are together the future of what being a ‘fullback’ means.