The Premier League’s Best Right Back: Reece James vs. Trent Alexander-Arnold
By: Tony Jeon
For the past few seasons, the conversation of the best right back in the Premier League has been dominated by Chelsea’s Reece James and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. As a product of the Liverpool youth system, Alexander-Arnold made his senior debut in 2016 and eventually earned his spot in Jurgen Klopp’s starting XI from the 2017/18 campaign and beyond. Similarly, Reece James came through the Chelsea academy ranks and broke into the first team under Frank Lampard in the 2019/20 season following a season-long loan spell at Wigan Athletic. Ever since the appointment of Thomas Tuchel following Lampard’s sacking, Reece James’ rise to the top has been nothing short of meteoric.
Whether it's comparing Messi vs. Ronaldo or Pelé vs. Maradona, the question of how to determine the better player has always been quite ambiguous. For the purposes of our comparison, we began with a statistical analysis using a score system that awards a point to a player every time he exceeds the other player in a performance metric. Six metrics for each offense and defense were selected, leaving a total of twelve points up for grabs. This criteria will help differentiate each player’s ability in a specific category in an attempt to ascertain the superior right back.
Before diving into the performance metrics, let’s take a look at what each player has accomplished in their young careers (as of October 10, 2022). At club level, Trent Alexander-Arnold has 14 goals and 58 assists in 234 appearances in all competitions while Reece James has 14 goals and 22 assists in 179 appearances. For the England national team, Trent Alexander-Arnold has 1 goal and 4 assists in 17 appearances. On the other hand, Reece James is yet to net a goal while grabbing 3 assists in 15 appearances. In terms of trophy cabinets, Trent Alexander-Arnold possesses a larger plethora of accolades that includes a Premier League title while both players have won the Champions League.
Analyzing Performance Metrics
The twelve metrics used were specifically chosen due to their relevance to the playing style of a right back in today’s modern game. The statistics utilized in the following analysis are accurate as of October 10, 2022 and are measured on a “Per-90” basis by taking the accumulated total divided by total minutes played then multiplying by 90. As a means of comparison, these player’s statistics for each metric were visualized together using a barplot as well as a radar chart. The radar chart was included to provide further insight on the distribution of each player’s offensive and defensive abilities as well as how they match up against the other player.
The performance metrics used to compare the offensive ability of these two players include the following:
Shot-Creating Actions - The last two offensive actions directly leading to a shot (such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls)
Progressive Passes - Completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent’s goal at least ten yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or any completed pass into the penalty area (excluding passes from the defending 40% of the pitch)
As shown in the visualizations, both players exceeded the other in three of the six offensive performance metrics. The biggest gap between the players’ statistics is in the progressive passes category where Alexander-Arnold exceeds James 8.69 to 5.63. On the other hand, the smallest gap is in the assists category where Alexander-Arnold overperforms James 0.29 to 0.28. This miniscule difference in assists per 90’ was quite surprising as Alexander-Arnold is a much more renowned playmaker than Reece James. That said, Alexander-Arnold's elite playmaking ability is still reflected in the statistics, specifically in the shot-creating actions and progressive passes categories where his statistics are much higher than that of Reece James.
The performance metrics used to compare the defensive ability of these two players include the following:
Pressures - When a player gets in close proximity with an opposing player in possession of the ball to force an error
Reece James exceeded Trent Alexander-Arnold in five of the six defensive performance metrics. The largest difference in statistics is found in the pressures category where James outperforms Alexander-Arnold 12.62 to 8.58. It is interesting to note that even though James exceeded Alexander-Arnold in five categories, the differences in the defensive metrics are not drastic. The media is infamous for constantly berating the Liverpool right back for defensive woes when in reality his defensive statistics are not that far off of Reece James who is praised for his defending.
Out of the twelve performance metrics, Reece James surpassed Trent Alexander-Arnold in eight; thus, leaving James with eight points versus Alexander-Arnold’s four. Using this point system, it would be reasonable to assume that Reece James is a better right back than Trent Alexander-Arnold strictly based on statistics. The radar chart below further sheds light on this statement by depicting how well-rounded the Chelsea right back is compared to the Liverpool right back.
It is important to acknowledge the limitations of the statistical criteria used to compare these two players. With the form of players constantly changing, the limited range and scope of data may portray misleading findings. In addition, the choice of the metrics utilized in the project was quite ambiguous as there is no concrete criteria for how to compare right backs. Despite this ambiguity, the statistical conclusions made were based on the criteria defined at the beginning.
The Effect of Playing in Different Systems
While the comparative analysis of these players has been heavily dependent on statistics so far, we must acknowledge the impact of playing in different systems that are not accounted for in the numbers.
Chelsea FC Under Tuchel
It is no coincidence that Reece James started to truly blossom under former Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel who utilized a three-back formation. Within Tuchel’s system, Reece James played as a right wingback that darts up and down the right flank. Without the same echelon of attackers as Liverpool, Chelsea’s attacking system invites James to roam into the opposition’s final third to help dictate goal-scoring opportunities. James’ freedom to get forward without the immediate worry of dropping back in line with his center backs places him in more attacking positions closer to the opponent’s goal than Alexander-Arnold. In other words, Reece James tends to have more threatening chances, which leads to more goals per 90’ as shown in the statistical comparison.
Liverpool FC Under Klopp
In contrast to Tuchel, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp sets his team up in a four-back system with Alexander-Arnold at right fullback. During his time in the Liverpool academy, Alexander-Arnold was converted from a wide midfielder to his current position at right full back, which is heavily reflected in his excellent playmaking ability. Alexander-Arnold’s wide passing range as a deep-lying playmaker provides an extra dimension to Liverpool’s buildup by quickly breaking lines and inviting blistering forwards like Mohammed Salah to make runs in behind the opposition’s defense. Despite the luxury of playing alongside Virgil Van Dijk, Alexander-Arnold’s responsibility to maintain disciplined defensive positioning to prevent counter attacks hinders him from enjoying the same freedom of darting forward into the opposition’s box that Reece James possesses. And while these right backs have similar total shots per game, Alexander-Arnold’s conservative attacking positioning in Liverpool’s system influences him to take shots from further out than James.
Reflected by the metrics, Reece James is a one-of-a-kind talent that is exceptional in both sides of the game. And while Trent Alexander-Arnold may not be as well-rounded as Reece James, the former has truly revolutionized the play-making role of a right back. His ability to flawlessly pick out pin-point crosses makes him a serious threat on set pieces that Reece James cannot compare to. Apart from Alexander-Arnold’s one-of-a-kind offensive ability, critics scrutinize his defensive ability not being on par with James’ despite the gap between their defensive metrics being fairly minimal.
In October, Reece James suffered a knee injury against AC Milan in a Champions League group stage match that ruled him out for eight weeks. His hopes of recovering in time to play in this year’s World Cup knockout stages were crushed by England manager Gareth Southgate’s decision to leave him out of his 26-man squad. Additionally, despite Liverpool’s lackluster start to the 2022/23 season, Trent Alexander-Arnold joined an star-studded roster as arguably Southgate’s top option at right-wing back in a back-three formation entering the competition. However, Alexander-Arnold’s spot in the starting XI has been occupied by an inform Kieran Trippier and recently-recovered Kyle Walker throughout the group stages. With Southgate set on utilizing a back-four formation with more defensive-minded fullbacks, it is very unlikely to see Trent Alexander-Arnold start any knockout stage matches for the Three Lions at this major competition.
Still just 24 and 23 years old, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Reece James already boast illustrious careers at such a young age. Alexander-Arnold is already third in all-time assists amongst Premier League defenders and is on track to top the list in the near future. On the other hand, Reece James has already cemented himself as Gareth Southgate’s top option at right wing back for England at future major competitions. With so much left ahead of them, there is absolutely no doubt that these two world-class talents will continue to dominate and eventually cement their names in the history of “The Beautiful Game” forever.