IN recent weeks there has been growing attention among Liverpool fans over Nathaniel Clyne and his long-term prospects at Liverpool. One of the most steady performers at the club since his £12.5 million arrival from Southampton in the summer of 2015, Clyne’s form has undoubtedly dipped over the past couple of months, coinciding with the general malaise which affected the team as a whole over this period.
Widely regarded as a model of consistency, turning in 7/10 performances every week, with the occasional eight or nine thrown in, Clyne made the step up from Southampton to Liverpool with minimum fuss, proving a real breath of fresh air following Glen Johnson’s gradual deterioration towards the back end of his time on Merseyside.
Not only reliable in terms of the quality of his performances, Clyne is one of the most durable players in this Liverpool squad, having started 33 league games last season, missing just one so far this time out. With Liverpool’s centre-back combination constantly needing chopping and changing, the very fact that Clyne is available to be called upon every week is an important asset of his and is crucial in terms of building defensive partnerships. Fitness records are also something Liverpool must factor in when recruiting new signings this summer, by the way.
Although the role of the modern full-back requires them to provide a key attacking outlet, Clyne is one of an increasingly rare breed in that he is first and foremost an excellent defender. Positionally, he knows exactly where to be most of the time and will judge the timing of his forward runs well so as not to leave his side of the pitch dangerously exposed. Strong in the tackle and physically well-equipped with his natural pace and robust frame, Clyne is extremely difficult to beat in one-on-one situations.
Admittedly, there are times when he can be accused of switching off and he isn’t the strongest player in the air, but these faults apply to virtually all full-backs and are rarities with Clyne.
It is offensively where much of the recent frustration lies. Given the system Liverpool play and the common tendency to dominate possession against the vast majority of opponents, the full-backs are tasked not only with defensive duties, but also must form an important part of the attacking structure, providing the main source of width in forward areas given the natural inclination of Phil Coutinho and Sadio Mane to drift infield.
In 83 appearances for Liverpool, Clyne has managed just two goals and four assists in total, which, given the amount of possession he receives in advanced positions, falls short of what you would ideally want from your full-back in this system. Too often his crosses are either over hit or fail to bypass the first defender and he often looks uncomfortable when he has too much time on the ball.
Clyne manages just 0.5 successful take-ons per game, which is comparatively inferior to the other top right-backs in the Premier League, with Kyle Walker averaging 1.2, Hector Bellerin 1.5 and Antonio Valencia 1.4. Very rarely do you ever see Clyne burst past a player and especially when Liverpool struggle to break down deep-lying defences, you sometimes want him to offer that little bit extra rather than simply taking the safe option and passing backwards.
It’s particularly frustrating given that Clyne has the capacity to do it, as he showed when providing the assist for Philippe Coutinho’s second goal at the Emirates against Arsenal in August, using his speed to beat his man and get to the byline before providing a quality delivery into the box. He can and should be doing more of that.
Yet when we criticise Clyne, it is worth acknowledging how statistically he is actually the most creative right-back in the league, averaging 1.4 chances per game, compared to Walker (1.3), Bellerin (0.6) and Valencia (1.2). This is in part down to the amount of possession he gets in wide areas as a result of how Liverpool play, but nonetheless it suggests his attacking limitations are not nearly as severe as many seem to suggest.
There is certainly an argument that Clyne would benefit from having more of a target to aim for in the middle, as trying to pick out Roberto Firmino in a crowded penalty area full of 6ft 5in defenders is almost impossible most of the time.
The question I ask whenever people suggest a player isn’t good enough for Liverpool is how feasible it would be to replace and upgrade on them. With some, such as Dejan Lovren (who I believe would be a good third-choice centre-back next season), there is a stronger case to say we can cash in and find a better quality replacement.
With Clyne, however, I think it’s very difficult to see who we could go out and buy who would be a definite improvement at this stage. Across Europe in general, there is a dearth of top-class right-backs (and left-backs too) and the very best — the likes of Dani Carvajal, Juanfran, Dani Alves, Philipp Lahm — are already at the top clubs and are unattainable, with most of them in the latter stages of their careers.
Monaco’s Djibril Sidibe and PSG’s Serge Aurier are both 24 and would possibly be targets were Liverpool to look for options in that position — that’s if they would even consider coming to Liverpool with other wealthier, top clubs all likely keeping tabs on them. But as is the case with any new signing, there’s absolutely no guarantee that they would settle in well and adapt quickly at Liverpool, whereas Clyne is already integrated as a key member of the squad and has those existing relationships with the players and the coaching staff. He knows the city and what it’s like to play in this league, too.
A key point in all this is that perhaps Clyne has become too secure in his position and needs to have some proper competition. There’s no need to look to the transfer market for this, though, as the impressive emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold provides the answer from within. He’s still only 18 and far more raw than Clyne in defensive terms, but Trent arguably already carries a greater attacking threat from right-back with his crossing ability and technique on the ball.
After a shaky start, he coped admirably when thrown in at Old Trafford in Clyne’s absence and demonstrated maturity beyond his years. That Klopp was prepared to start Trent instead of shifting James Milner to cover right-back with Alberto Moreno at left-back speaks volumes of his prospects. He already looks very much like a player who has all the tools to make it at Liverpool in the long-run.
In many ways, it’s an ideal situation. It’s easy to envisage a scenario in which Trent becomes a viable option against more defensive sides, while Clyne continues as the main option against the strongest opponents next season. Strong competition is always healthy and with European football of some form to contend with next season, Liverpool will need at least two strong options in each position.
Clyne is an ideal role model for Trent to learn from, while Trent can push Clyne to raise his game and keep him on his heels as his long-term successor. Of all the issues in the current squad, right-back certainly isn’t anywhere near the top of the priorities to address.
Although Clyne isn’t perfect and we should always be looking to improve, he should not be dismissed off the back of a poor couple of months by his standards and he remains one of the top right-backs out there at the moment. With a hugely promising Scouse prospect waiting in the wings, it’s a position which is sorted for the foreseeable future.