BURTON ON TRENT, England (Reuters) - Without an international cap to his name and just 26 Premier League appearances, 19-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold appears, on paper, to be a relatively risky choice for England’s World Cup campaign in Russia.
But England manager Gareth Southgate is expected to give the Liverpool right back his international debut in Thursday’s friendly against Costa Rica in Leeds completing a remarkable breakthrough season for the defender.
Alexander-Arnold’s opportunities at Anfield this year came earlier than expected after a long-term injury to first choice right back Nathaniel Clyne was followed by his replacement Joe Gomez also being sidelined.
Manager Juergen Klopp threw the teenager in at the deep end and the Liverpool academy product responded with some impressive displays – even when opponents targeted him, hoping to exploit his inexperience.
The youngster said he sensed such targeting, particularly in the Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City, which in many ways was his coming of age.
City overloaded their left flank and constantly sought out winger Leroy Sane but Alexander-Arnold held firm and his attacking forays made a major contribution to a famous victory.
“I think with the Man City game it was blatantly obvious. But it is one of them where you live for the opportunities to show yourself on a big stage and they are the games everyone wants to play in. So you have to do your best and prove why you shouldn’t be the target,” he told Reuters.
“The team is only as weak as its weakest link and if they see me as the weakest link then why can’t I be a strong part of the chain and prove that we are an unbelievably strong team. I think that is what we showed,” he said, reflecting on Liverpool’s 5-1 aggregate win against the Premier League champions.
The ability to handle City’s attempt to expose him showed a level of self-belief that Southgate was clearly impressed with.
“His performances have been excellent. He’s shown in games of real pressure the personality and the ability to cope with that and excel,” the England manager said.
Oppositions may no longer view him as a potential vulnerability to be exposed but the defender says the nature of a full back’s role means they can quickly become a target in a game and need to have the personal strength to deal with those sudden moments of pressure.
“There are times when someone gets past you and during the game the team decides that ‘he is the weakest link’ – you have to bounce back straight away and there is no getting advice from the manager or anything like that, it is all about you on the pitch with the ten others and working together to bounce back,” he said.
He is softly spoken but Alexander-Arnold has a quiet confidence and steel allied with a maturity beyond his years. He says any danger of being over-awed is dealt with by a simple reminder to himself of the faith that others have shown in him.
“I’ve always been confident in myself. You are there for a reason, you are on the pitch for a reason and you are getting a chance for a reason and it is always about proving why the manager has given you that chance,” he said.
“That is what I try to do – make the manager proud of me and prove to the fans and everyone watching why he has trusted me.”
Alexander-Arnold showed his qualities again in the Champions League semi-final triumph over AS Roma. However, his European campaign ended with disappointment as Klopp’s team were beaten 3-1 by Real Madrid in last month’s final in Kiev.
There was just a week off to process that loss before he reported to England’s training camp at St. George’s Park and he said he has been able to put the disappointment behind him.
“Obviously, initially it is really hard to forget about such an experience like that but it is past us now and there is no getting it back. It is one of them where you have to take the positives and negatives and move on – use it for next season,” he said.
That sort of level-headed attitude should certainly help Alexander-Arnold at Elland Road on Thursday as he seeks to show that while Kieran Trippier may be first choice at right back, England have a reliable alternative with an exciting future ahead of him.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge