Wednesday 12 December 2018

The rookie who could become a grand master

Trent Alexander-Arnold's love of chess is unusual in a footballer. On the pitch, however, he is making all the right moves

Liverpool and England's Trent Alexander-Arnold. Photo: PA
Liverpool and England's Trent Alexander-Arnold. Photo: PA

Jonathan Liew

It's all going wrong. The defence has been ripped to shreds. The opposition are running riot through the middle, and even as Trent Alexander-Arnold calmly surveys the wreckage in front of him, he's powerless to do anything about it. His pawns are in disarray, his king and rook are in a vicious fork, and alas the endgame is in sight.

Wordlessly, bloodlessly, Magnus Carlsen delivers the final rites: knight to e4, checkmate. The pair rise, shake hands and smile weakly for the cameras before Carlsen has to go and catch a plane from Manchester Airport. No, not a vivid cheese dream. We really have just watched an England and Liverpool right-back getting schooled at chess.

If the outcome was routine enough, then the scenario was anything but. When a Russian cybersecurity company called Kaspersky Labs offered Alexander-Arnold the chance to take on the reigning world champion and a man widely credited as the greatest player of all time, he leapt at the challenge, even though deep down he knew exactly how it was going to end.

It was, he decided, a good way of encouraging young fans to take up a game that has given him hours of pleasure since childhood.

Spirits

Still, he's in decent spirits as he sits down for his interview, having been informed that in lasting a full 17 moves before succumbing to defeat, he's done a better job than Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who managed just nine when he took Carlsen on five years ago.

"Proud," he says of his effort. "I don't think I could do too much differently. He just trapped me, really."

It's a passion that he inherited from his father, who introduced Trent and his two brothers to chess at an early age. They still enjoy a game almost every week, and although he's never really competed at a serious level ("I find it a good way to relax," he says), like any sportsman at the top of his game, when he plays, he plays to win.

Ben Woodburn, his former Liverpool academy team-mate currently on loan at Sheffield United, is his main sparring partner amongst the footballing fraternity.

All of which leads seamlessly into a conversation about the game with which Alexander-Arnold is more instinctively familiar.

We all know the usual tropes about dopey footballers, a stereotype that Alexander-Arnold himself - bright, articulate, conscientious - does plenty to refute. But at the very highest level of the game, with its infinite complexities, technical details and tactical nuances, is the very reverse true? Could an innate intelligence actually be a prerequisite for a elite footballer?

Alexander-Arnold considers the question with his customary restraint. "I wouldn't say you need to be clever," he says eventually. "But you need a knowledge of the game and the surroundings. That's important. To see something before it happens and read it best."

Which of his Liverpool team-mates is the best reader of a game?

"The stand-out would probably be Virgil (van Dijk). The way he makes interceptions and tackles and headers and clearances. He half-knows where the ball's going to be before anyone else does."

Reading the game has always been one of Alexander-Arnold's gifts, too.

There are some at Liverpool who believe his maturity and insight would be ideally suited to a midfield playmaker role at some point.

For now, however, he's happy enough bombing up and down the right flank at Anfield, even if he's been in and out of the side so far this season.

The hard-fought goalless draw against Manchester City on Sunday maintained Liverpool's unbeaten Premier League start, and Alexander-Arnold nods when asked whether there is more to come from a team who have looked solid without ever quite hitting the giddying emotional highs of the last campaign.

"There's obviously a lot of room for improvement," he says.

"We're not a perfect team at all. We still concede goals, and that's something that we want to try and stop. But those challenges become harder and harder as the season goes on, and that's something we'll look to improve.

"We know what it's like to play in high-pressure games, because we felt it last season in the Champions League. The manager's got a lot of experience as well in these situations (with Borussia Dortmund), so he knows what it takes to win titles. So as usual, he'll give all of us the perfect advice to keep getting wins, because that's all that matters."

Despite going four games without a win, the spirit in the dressing room remains high. Alexander-Arnold smiles as he discusses how new signings Alisson, Naby Keita and Fabinho have slotted into the squad, recalling the uproarious initiation ceremonies they were put through during pre-season.

"You have to sing a song on your first away camp," he says. "Alisson got his guitar out and everything. Mine was last year in Germany. Me and Ben Woodburn did a duet: 'Stand By Me'. Not the Oasis one."

The international break now looms large, with Alexander-Arnold joining up with an England squad in which, despite turning 20 on Sunday, he is no longer the junior member.

The selections of Jadon Sancho, James Maddison and Mason Mount have given Gareth Southgate's side a fresh and unfamiliar feel ahead of the Nations League games against Croatia and Spain. Alexander-Arnold is eager to see them up close.

"It's exciting times for English football," he says. "Credit to the manager for putting his faith in young players. Jadon is one of the most exciting youngsters in Europe. He's shown that this season with his incredible numbers at Dortmund. I've played with Mason before in the under-19s. A top lad and a top player. Hopefully he'll get a debut in these two games."

Sancho and Mount have learned their trade abroad, with Sancho moving to the Bundesliga and Mount going on loan to Vitesse Arnhem in Holland. Alexander-Arnold may be a born-and-raised Scouser playing for his home-town club, but is it a path he recommends?

"Obviously it's a big thing to move away from home and go to another country," he says. "It takes a lot of confidence. They've learned different ways of playing football, different tactics, coming up against different challenges. It's worked for those two, but it's not going to work for every player."

The euphoria of the summer has long since subsided, but it's instructive to hear what he learned from his two big formative eastern European experiences: defeat in the Champions League final to Real Madrid in Kiev, and England's rousing but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring football home at the World Cup.

"I didn't really see them as disappointments, as such," he says. "I saw them as something to learn from. They're the type of games that I want to play in. So I think about how we got to those games, what worked for us, and hopefully go a step further next time."

In the meantime, however, another challenge looms on the horizon. Alexander-Arnold's sideline in board games, it appears, has not gone unnoticed, and as soon as news broke of his encounter with Carlsen, one England team-mate was straight on the phone.

"Eric Dier's messaged me," he says. "He told me to bring my chess board and we'll have a few games." Better luck this time, Trent. (© Independent News Service)

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