Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Liverpool should happily accept Trent Alexander-Arnold mistakes, even when it costs them the Champions League

PARIS — For five minutes, maybe more, Trent Alexander-Arnold stood there, dumbstruck. He could not move. Words of consolation from his Liverpool teammates, from Real Madrid opponents could not break him out from his fugue state.

Rather than celebrate his fifth Champions League title, Gareth Bale, a man who knows better than most about scapegoating, came across to embrace Alexander-Arnold, who could scarcely bring himself to move. The embrace of his manager, Jurgen Klopp, was similarly brief.

You do not need a degree in sports psychology to suspect what might have been going through his head. Alexander-Arnold, whose eye for the most magnificent of passes had turned Liverpool into a winning juggernaut, who had redefined what is possible from a defender, the West Derby lad who had become a hometown icon, blamed himself. If he had only looked over his shoulder when Federico Valverde shaped to cross from the right he would have seen Vinicius Junior charging through. He might have been able to do more to stop him.

He might not. Valverde’s delivery was an excellent one but the combined efforts of Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho might have done more to stop it at its source. Had it come a split second later Vinicius might well have been offside; there was good fortune to go with the quality that won the match.

Come the final whistle it didn’t matter. Suddenly, in Alexander-Arnold’s eyes, everything else counted for naught; not just the chances he had created, the fizzing crosses that might have brought the game’s opener to Liverpool, but the crucial intervention in the first half when a through ball from deep threatened to set Vinicius away. A defender that lacks his athleticism might not have been able to stop that pass. A different defender might have made the error Alexander-Arnold did not.

A different defender would not have laid on three shooting chances for his teammates or ended the game with 0.21 expected assists, the most on his team and a better tally than Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Vinicius and Valverde combined. On most nights Alexander-Arnold could have been Liverpool’s match winner; a better run from Diogo Jota 10 minutes after Madrid’s opener and he would have been nodding in a cross at the back post. Even Thibaut Courtois could not have stopped it.

Alexander-Arnold’s woes are reflected across this Liverpool team. By every measure they dominated: 24 shots to four, 2.14 expected goals to 0.88, 41 touches in the Madrid box to 15 for the European champions in theirs. There but for the heroics of Courtois go Liverpool.

“In a football game, in a close football game and even when we had a lot more shots than Madrid, it is about scoring, easy,” said Jurgen Klopp, who wished his team might have done even more to ask questions of the imperious Belgian. “Then the other problem is, with 24 shots how you say, I remember three situations where Thibaut Courtois made a proper save, a world-class save, and with our quality we can cause them more problems.”

For most of this game Liverpool had Madrid pinned under relentless pressure. The first half was a relentless whirlwind of energy in the midfield and rapid movement and positional interchanging at the point of attack. At the outset Carlo Ancelotti’s side seemed pinned down by the remorseless energy of their opponent. For the best part of an hour escapes from their own penalty area were infrequent at best.

As Klopp noted, Madrid had come to the Stade de France intent on protecting Courtois’ goal above all else. In those circumstances Alexander-Arnold seemed destined to be the one who would charm this game apart. Twice in the first half he teed up Mohamed Salah to go close, the flicked header straight at Madrid’s goalkeeper in the 34th minute was, you sensed, one of those moments where Klopp was unimpressed with Liverpool’s finishing.

These moments were why you make the defensive compromises that come with having Alexander-Arnold in your team, ones which Jordan Henderson and Ibrahima Konate managed to mitigate until they couldn’t any more. Precious few players in world football could find the Salah-shaped needle in Madrid’s giant haystack of a penalty area. Even after the gut punch of the opener, he rippled with ingenuity and vision, an attempt to reprise that legendary corner which turned the tide against Barcelona when Liverpool won this title in 2019, a quickly taken attempt before their opponents were set, which was just about disrupted at the Madrid near post.

Alexander-Arnold might have felt like he had cost his teammates a treble. They would do well to remind him how unlikely such a prospect might be without this creative freak of nature, a man whose underlying metrics make you assume there must be gremlins in the data, on their side. It will be a small crumb of comfort to the man himself now, but if you were to ask Klopp or anyone in Liverpool red whether they would be prepared to accept one mistake at the back for what Alexander-Arnold usually delivers for them at the other end of the pitch, they would not hesitate in saying yes.

Alexander-Arnold and Liverpool will be back in these situations again. If he, and they, repeat this performance, they will surely not be so crestfallen again.

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