In 2015 the Monaco manager, Leonardo Jardim, decided to relocate his right-back to central midfield. Fabinho performed so well in his new role that less than two years later, with Monaco on course for the French title and the semi‑finals of the Champions League, Jardim trumpeted him as the best midfielder in the world. But Brazil’s manager, Tite, continued to think of Fabinho primarily as a full-back – an inferior one to Dani Alves – leading Jardim to declare: “I will never put a player of his level at right-back.”
Since joining Liverpool Fabinho has confirmed that he is indeed a superb midfielder. And it is interesting to refer to his case when considering the future of his clubmate Trent Alexander-Arnold, another right-back whose qualities suggest he could thrive midfield.
While with England this week Alexander-Arnold was asked what he thought about Jamie Carragher’s recent suggestion that he could end up playing as Liverpool’s answer to Kevin De Bruyne. “That’s his point of view and maybe one day it will happen: who knows?” he replied. “But for the time being, the manager has obviously decided that I am a right-back and that is where I will play. I just want to play football. If the manager decides that he wants to use me as a midfielder, a centre-back or striker, that is where I’ll play.”
A sensible reply. He also mentioned that the player on whom he modelled himself as a youth was Steven Gerrard, who was occasionally deployed on the right before making the middle his stage.
“Everything about his game I really admired,” Alexander-Arnold said. “I always studied him and wanted to be like him.”
There is little doubt that Alexander-Arnold could revel in midfield. It is likely he could cope with the extra physical demands – he has no shortage of dynamism and only one defender (Patrick Van Aanholt) and four midfielders (Wilfred Ndidi, Oriel Romeu, Declan Rice and João Moutinho) have won more tackles than him in the Premier League this season. He would have to hone his positional play but that is also true in his current role and there is no reason to think either development is beyond him. The main benefit he would bring to Liverpool’s midfield is more creativity, not in place of Fabinho – who is already Liverpool’s most inventive midfielder as well as their most important defensively – but alongside the Brazilian, with Alexander-Arnold serving as a De Bruyne while Fabinho would remain more comparable to Fernandinho.
Alexander-Arnold, after all, has a range of passing off either foot that would enable him to prise open defences from all angles if given freedom to probe from the middle. And he has the intelligence and precision to see and take the most rewarding opportunities, along with a wit that burns brightest in the heat of the action, producing firecracker moments like his nifty corner kick and cross against Barcelona in last season’s Champions League semi-final or his transformation of the corner flag into a prop for a nutmeg on Ben Chilwell last Saturday. The more a player with his technique, vision and ingenuity is involved in the play, the better.
But that is where the case for a move becomes less clear. How much more involved in the play would Alexander-Arnold be in Liverpool’s midfield? As things stand, Liverpool set up in a way that harnesses the 21-year-old’s most dangerous weapon – his sumptuous crossing – as much as possible (“Crossing is probably my best asset going forward,” he said on Wednesday). Klopp’s system gives his full-backs as much time and space as possible when they attack.
Compare Alexander-Arnold’s route to goal to that of Leicester’s Ricardo Pereira. The Portuguese has completed more dribbles than any other defender in the league this season, whereas Alexander‑Arnold does not even feature in the top 10. That is because Opta defines a dribble as a run during which a player beats at least one opponent while retaining possession of the ball. Alexander-Arnold runs into attacking positions at least as often as Pereira (delivering over 30 crosses more than the Leicester player so far this season) but seldom has to beat an opponent to get there because Liverpool work gaps for him so well.
There would, then, be a cost as well as a benefit to shifting Alexander-Arnold from right-back to midfield. His passing would enhance Liverpool in the middle, assuming, probably safely, that he would show the requisite dynamism and savviness to go with it. But who would then play at right-back? None of the current options would offset his loss from that position. So while Fabinho and Alexander-Arnold looks to be an appealing combination in Liverpool’s midfield, the club are not yet ready for that evolution. They first need to find another right-back of Alexander-Arnold’s level.
The Guardian Sport