Premier League football returns this weekend, following the latest dreaded international break that football fans are always happy to see the back of, particularly if the players at their club return with a clean bill of health.
One thing we learned is the opportunity Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez have to progress with England and improve their national team when the European Championships roll around next summer.
England's Defence – Must Do Better
On paper, England recorded two comfortable wins during the international break, registering a 4-0 win over Bulgaria and a 5-3 victory against Kosovo.
However, despite the energy and passion shown by the latter, both sides are far away from the world’s best, with Bulgaria particularly a limited, below-average side that cannot compare with Bulgarian sides of the past.
Meanwhile, Kosovo came into their match with England full of confidence – after all, they had the longest unbeaten run in Europe of fifteen matches, regardless of the opposition they faced.
They made their biggest test yet a competitive match in the first minute and then the second half, and England coughed up chances throughout with horrendously poor defensive mistakes.
The worst came inside forty seconds after Everton’s Michael Keane passed to Valon Berisha instead of Harry Maguire (not helped by Ross Barkley’s backwards pass to begin with) and resulted in a Kosovo goal and 1-0 lead, shocking for both its timing in the match and result on the scoreboard.
England recovered decisively during the rest of the first half, and there is no question about the power Gareth Southgate possesses going forward, with the attacking trident of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and, most likely, Jadon Sancho set to star at the European Championships next summer.
Nevertheless, England’s hopes of a successful run in Euro 2020, to back up their performance in the World Cup last summer, almost entirely depends on fixing the quality of their defence, plus the setup in midfield so England have the right balance of protection and creativity.
The Case for Trent
Alexander-Arnold was part of the England defence on Tuesday night, and the 20-year-old did not particularly excel with his performance.
Yet he is still starting out at international level, with Kyle Walker only now in danger of losing his position as England’s first-choice right-back, following Southgate’s switch to a four-man defence.
England have a plethora of options at right-back with Walker, Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but the full-back needs time to develop his game at Manchester United, particularly going forward, while Trippier is not in the same class as Walker or Alexander-Arnold.
Walker has starred as part of arguably the greatest team in Premier League with Manchester City in recent years.
Moreover, Alexander-Arnold has already played in two Champions League finals, travelled to the World Cup with England and cemented the right-back spot with Liverpool – who, alongside City, are probably the best team in Europe.
Walker and Alexander-Arnold should go to the Euros, therefore Alexander-Arnold has to continue his progression at Anfield in order to ensure he is England’s first-choice right-back for the present, rather than just the future. His positional sense and defensive skills still need work, as too often he can be caught out following his runs forward and relies on his pace to get him out of trouble.
Yet he clearly has the capability to become a complete full-back for the modern game – for example when he held off Manchester City’s Leroy Sané in the Champions League last April.
His ability is going forward is unquestioned in world football and unrivalled when compared with the rest of England’s right-backs.
Alexander-Arnold has the platform to play with Liverpool and be successful both personally and with his club – but he must continue his upward trajectory for Liverpool and England to achieve Premier League and European Championship glory respectively.
The Case for Gomez
Joe Gomez has seen little football of any note in 2019.
Following an outstanding end to 2018 where the 22-year-old established himself as the clear partner for Virgil van Dijk at Anfield.
Another cruel injury effectively ended his relevance for the rest of Liverpool’s season and cost him the opportunity to develop a partnership with Harry Maguire for England.
Yet as he returns fit again and bidding to overhaul the brilliant Joël Matip for Liverpool’s second centre-back birth alongside van Djik, the outlook at centre-half for England remains as unclear as ever.
In fact, on paper, it would be easier for Gomez to establish himself with England then break back into the Liverpool side if he did not need the latter to achieve the former.
John Stones has also experienced injury problems this year but continues to produce basic mistakes for club and country that plague his development into a top-class defender.
Stones’ stalled progress has certainly caused Southgate concern and City boss Pep Guardiola doubt over whether he will ever fulfil the potential he displayed with Everton, then initially with City and also England.
Keane does not look good enough at international level – struggling against Kosovo is hardly encouraging when England are aiming to compete with the likes of France and Belgium next summer.
Finally, the likes of James Tarkowski, Tyrone Mings, Rob Holding and Jamaal Lascelles have either suffered from inconsistency, injury doubts or a lack of time in England’s squad to develop under Southgate to be considered ahead of Gomez in the England pecking order.
At his best, Gomez’s pace, physicality, reactions and ability both on the ball and reading the game make him the perfect partner for Maguire, in a partnership similar to Gomez and van Dijk.
Play well for Liverpool and England awaits
Liverpool entertain Newcastle United at Anfield on Saturday lunchtime – Alexander-Arnold will start but Gomez will likely only make the bench unless Matip is rested for Liverpool’s Champions League opener against Napoli.
Jordan Henderson is already a permanent fixture for both club and country – Trent is with his club but not country while Gomez has dropped back from both.
From a team perspective, there should be no lack of incentive to perform as the Reds chase down their first league title in thirty years, but there are personal objectives for Gomez and Alexander-Arnold to achieve this season.
Matip remains a considerable obstacle for Gomez, and Liverpool have a wonderful headache in having the pair, plus Dejan Lovren, as options for van Dijk, but if Alexander-Arnold and Gomez are playing and performing for Liverpool then England will be all the better for it as they eye their own assault on a grand prize.