Gareth Southgate insists he was trying to “protect” Trent Alexander-Arnold when he dropped him from his England squad and has hinted the Liverpool full-back could play in midfield at the European Championship.
Alexander-Arnold was a shock omission for the World Cup qualification triple-header in March, with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp among those to question the decision.
The 22-year-old has been recalled by Southgate as the Three Lions manager named a 33-man provisional squad for this summer’s rearranged Euro 2020 tournament.
That number will get cut to 26 by June 1 and it remains to be seen if Southgate retains all four right-backs he has named.
Alexander-Arnold, a Premier League and Champions League winner with his club, fell out of favour with England after a slight dip in form.
But Southgate professed surprise at the reaction to his decision when speaking after naming his squad on Tuesday.
“Trent is very much in contention,” he said when asked if Alexander-Arnold was the most likely of the right-back options to miss out.
“People tend to think I don’t think Trent is a good footballer, that just isn’t the case. He has indirectly come in from some criticism at a certain time and I felt the need to communicate more with him than anyone else over the past couple of months but I think his performances have been very good.
“I don’t mind the criticism of my decisions, that’s part and parcel of it. But he is a young player we have got to look after and care for.
“I’m a little bit surprised by some of the things that have been written about that because people just don’t know those communications that have gone on. But that is credit to Trent that he has kept that to himself.”
Asked if he invited the criticism of Alexander-Arnold by saying he was left out in March due to his form, Southgate added: “In the end perhaps people didn’t like my rationale but in my own way I was trying to protect the player. In the end maybe that didn’t work.
“When you make a decision like I’ve made, of course there’s going to be ramifications to that. I accept that. But I didn’t want the player to suffer. That’s not the relationship I’ve had with him since he’s been 17.
“He is a very good footballer, that has never been in any doubt, and he’s with us next week and we go from there.”
Alexander-Arnold will be competing with Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker and Reece James for the spot on the right side of Southgate’s defence.
But, in suggesting some of those names could be utilised elsewhere on the pitch, Southgate did not bat away the idea of Alexander-Arnold slotting into midfield.
“I think there is no doubt he could,” he added.
“Of course the difficulty is he hasn’t had the opportunity to do that since he was a younger player and that’s where he came through in Liverpool’s academy.
“He’s a fantastic passer of the ball and he has great passing vision. So he’s a playmaker from right-back, that’s kind of what he is. So why wouldn’t that lend itself at some point of his career to being in midfield?
“But Jurgen has got fantastic performances out of him in the role he has with the structure of the team the way they have, so I’m sure he’s not thinking of needing to change that. But he’s capable in the same way that Reece played in midfield at Wigan.
“I saw him slot in there for 35 minutes the other day for Chelsea, absolutely no problem. These boys are outstanding footballers.
“They’re better in some of those other positions than other options we would have had and that’s why we’ve picked them.”