If England fail in Qatar it won’t be because they left out Alexander-Arnold

Obsession around the Liverpool player is a sideshow – England have three other high-class right-backs who all play in multiple positions
If England fail in Qatar it won’t be because they left out Alexander-Arnold

England's Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Maybe, just maybe it’s all going to be OK. Yes, there is no sensible universe in which a chaotic 3-3 draw looks like the tournament send-off of champions. And yes, one of the first rules of film states that the moment anyone suggests things might just be OK is a guarantee that, in fact, they’re definitely going to be anything but.

Never open the cupboard door. Never shout ‘Who’s there?’ into the darkness. Never sing along happily to the radio in the shower. And never, ever, approach a major tournament convinced that an underwhelming England can wing it, that things might click. They don’t click. There is no click.

The good news from the defeat by Italy and the draw against Germany is that there are only three things wrong with this England team right now. The bad news is those three things are the defence, the attack and the goalkeeper. And yet somehow, watching Gareth Southgate give his final pre-tournament address deep in the grey concrete keep of Wembley Stadium on Monday night it was tempting to feel that strangest of things: not exactly hope but a sense that this team might just exit the World Cup, whenever that might be, with a growl as opposed to a whimper.

There is a sense of divvying up right now. In the last few games it has been possible, for the first time, to see ghosts around this England team, a flicker of familiar outlines, the shadows of England managers past lurking just out of sight as Southgate paces his touchline, feeling a tug at his jacket tail, hearing the whisper at his back. Now you, too, are like us. And this thing will soon be gone. How it plays out, what the story of that unravelling becomes, will be significant for Southgate and indeed for whoever comes next.

The reality is he has been a good England manager. Defensive football and a narrow attacking plan have taken England deep in two tournaments. But that winning plan has now grown old. The defence has got worse, not better. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, first-choice attackers five years ago, are still first-choice attackers now. The alleged golden hand of generational super talent has turned out to be more of a rag-bag. Building another team is hard. Southgate has his limits as a coach. It hasn’t happened.

The question now is how to apportion blame, because blame is key to the way England football wants to see itself. There can be no reasonable failure, no acceptable falling short; only howlers, oversight, lions led by donkeys. The natural state of grace, the default option – England win – betrayed only by the greed and folly of those at the centre. It is a common misconception that the national sport is football. The national sport is in fact moaning about football, and moaning about football in a way that sustains this delusion.

Right now it seems likely this urge will settle on one player. It is clear enough with no games left to play that Trent Alexander-Arnold will not be in the squad for Qatar. This is a great shame because he is a wonderful footballer, pure joy to watch, and perhaps the most unusual, original, luxurious creative player of this England generation. But the idea Alexander-Arnold ought to be seen as a cause celebre, his non-selection a public injustice, an example of All That Is Wrong is also misguided, a notion that just falls apart under any scrutiny.

It may well be the case that Southgate has the wrong plan, or a dull plan, or a plan you simply don’t like. But to suggest not picking Alexander-Arnold is unjust or illogical or personally motivated is absurd. Most simple, he hasn’t had a very good season. Meanwhile England have three other high-class right-backs, all of whom play in multiple positions, all of whom are less risky defensively. And Southgate is not – have you been watching? – about being risky defensively. Reece James is also a fine young player with a Champions League pedigree. Kieran Trippier is a tournament warrior. Kyle Walker is … Kyle Walker. All three are ahead on form. And in fact the opposite is true: it would be illogical and unfair for Southgate to pick Alexander-Arnold ahead of any of these three right now.

This is where the Harry Maguire comparison may intrude. Like Alexander-Arnold, Maguire is also in poor form and yet he continues to be picked. Explain that, bro. In reality the two are unrelated. There is not a similar line-up of ready alternatives for Maguire. Maguire was in the Uefa team of the Euros last summer, whereas Alexander-Arnold has never played well for England. It might be a bad choice, false loyalty, doomed to fail. But there is still a logic behind Maguire. This selection has a chain of reason behind it, and is entirely in keeping with the last six years.

Has Alexander-Arnold been given a chance to earn the same margin for error? Eighteen caps in five years suggest not. He has had a run when fit and available. He would have been at the Euros but for injury. Meanwhile this has hardly been a problem position. England conceded one goal en route to the Euros final. The full-backs have scored important goals. We’re good, thanks.

There is a case that Alexander-Arnold should be selected for England outside of this process as a special case, simply because he is so talented, because of all that creative capacity going unused. And he is a uniquely dreamy kind of footballer, not so much a full-back as a roving playmaker, and a relentlessly creative force. But he basically plays one bespoke position very well when he is in form, in a Liverpool team geared to fit. England don’t play that way. And he’s not in form.

So why all the noise? Why must this become a cause celebre, an injustice, with implications of animosity and favouritism? What is it in this set-up that needs to find a sense of betrayal in every run of poor results? As anyone who has watched them for long enough will know, England have had lazy, incompetent, partial managers in the past. But, whatever Southgate’s failings, this is not that.

Guardian

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