They are quite different and yet so hard to separate. Their passage to Liverpool’s first-team, while incredibly similar, began in divergent areas of the North West.
Ben Woodburn divided his early brilliance between cricket and football on the Flacca Field in Tattenhall, a small village just outside the south-east of Chester, most famous for its Ice Cream Farm.
Reserved, with a piercing focus, he quickly knew he wanted nothing more professionally than to be part of those 90 minutes where everything is left on the pitch.
Around 40 miles away, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s formative years were spent in Merseyside’s football HQ, with Melwood and Everton’s former training complex Bellefield both situated in his home suburb of West Derby.
Effervescent, with a natural sense to take charge, it was only around the age of 11 when he realised a career in the sport was a serious option for him.
Woodburn and Alexander-Arnold, who both committed their long-term future to the club simultaneously last November, aptly arrive together to recap their dovetailing journey to being named among the 50 best teenagers in the world in Goal’s NxGn countdown, which will be revealed on Wednesday.
Both born in the month of October, the right-back a year older than Liverpool’s youngest-ever goalscorer, the duo began their association with the club aged six.
“There was a fun day and invites were sent to my school for my age group,” Alexander-Arnold recalls to Goal. “Names got picked out of a hat in my class, and luckily, mine was called! I went and there were loads of young kids, all excited to play.
“One of the Academy coaches asked my mum if she could start bringing me around so they could get a better look at me. I was a bit surprised because I just went to kick about for fun. I don’t think I realised what it meant yet apart from me just being able to play more football, which I was quite happy about.”
Woodburn, then at Tattenhall Primary, tells a comparable tale, with a slight deviation. “It wasn’t through my school like with Trent,” he adds.
“I was at Crewe and Everton before, and a scout told to come for one of the same kind of days. I really enjoyed it and that was it then – I wanted the same experience with Liverpool all the time.”
The forward’s desire to immerse himself in football was encouraged and supported by his father, Chris. “As far back as I can remember now, I just wanted to be with the ball every day,” reveals Woodburn, who has received his first senior Wales call-up for the March 24 World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland.
“My dad used to coach a Sunday League team and we shared the same dream. My brother, him and myself would kick about a lot – on the path, in the field daily. He has helped and pushed me a lot.”
Alex Inglethorpe, director of Liverpool’s Academy, believes the best mentor Alexander-Arnold has had is his mum, Dianne. “If you talk about a consistent message, which is what the players always need, she delivers it,” he says from his office, sat in front of three tactics boards plotting the agenda at Kirkby.
“And when we talk about our coaching team, she’s on it. She’s enforced everything that we wanted to enforce here.”
Inglethorpe laughs as he adds: “The only problem for Trent, is he can’t escape! He leaves training and goes home and gets the same reminders.”
The pair talk glowingly about family, their “biggest supporters,” but are also grateful to have found such a strong spine in an unforgiving industry.
“The Academy made us better players, but also better people,” Alexander-Arnold stresses.
“We learnt everything: what it takes to be successful in your position and as a team, but also how important education is, the challenges in the real world and how to build relationships.”
At Kirkby, balance is paramount and diligence is non-negotiable. There are no egos or superstars, no “bling bling” as Jurgen Klopp likes to put it. The focus of Inglethorpe and Phil Roscoe, who is the Head of Welfare and Education, along with the rest of the staff is not only to create fine footballers, but well-rounded individuals.
With such a solid base both at home and at the Academy, it’s not startling that Woodburn and Alexander-Arnold have been so well prepared to maximise their opportunities.
Pepijn Lijnders, Liverpool’s first-team development coach, who acts as the bridge between the youth structure and the senior set-up at Melwood, is enthused by the commitment they’ve shown to match their quality.
“I use Ben and Trent as a example often because they really are one,” he explains. “They help prove a lot of modern misconceptions in football wrong: that you have to be a certain age, a certain size, that you first have to go on loan and so on before you can get into the first team.
“If you see them after each session and how long they stay on the pitch – not just shooting on goal, crossing and heading and doing the nice things – they always challenge each other to become technically and tactically better.
“They are completely different players and personalities, but they define exactly our approach. Anfield is screaming out for young unpredictable players, who can open up games and speed up the tempo of the positional play, that’s a wonderful characteristic they both have in common.”
Lijnders runs the Talent Group, in which the best players from the Academy between 14 and 21 train at the West Derby facility with Klopp watching intently once a week. It is this project coupled with Liverpool’s ‘one-club’ mentality, which mirrors the playing philosophy and standards across all age groups, that the boys credit for their smooth transition to the senior squad.
Alexander-Arnold, who was a striker before being used as a No.6 by Lijnders when he coached the Under-16s, is now an exciting deputy to Nathaniel Clyne.
When the England international was unavailable through an abdominal issue for the visit to Manchester United in January, Klopp did not need to agonise about handing the 18-year-old his Premier League debut at Old Trafford.
“He has something extra, a certain insight and creativity that makes him able to play unpredictable passes,” explains Lijnders.
“He is quick in mind, knows what’s going to happen and has the capacity to improvise – this opens up situations for himself or for others.
“Our playing idea is to create chance after chance, from each position taking this initiative. A right defender who can create and can dominate the complete right channel. In my opinion, he is one of the most all-round talents in Europe with a ‘team first’ attitude.
“When he was my captain at U16 level, he was able to control rhythm and make the team play like no-one else. Some people are born to become a football player; he is definitely one of them.”
On November 29, exactly 18 years after Steven Gerrard made his Liverpool debut, Woodburn made history in the League Cup hosting of Leeds United. He was introduced on 67 minutes and by the 81st, he’d broken Michael Owen’s record to become the club’s youngest goalscorer, smashing high into the roof of the net in front of the Kop after Gini Wijnaldum’s flick on.
His arms extended and eyes wide open as he screamed uncontrollably, both Gerrard and the previous holder of the feat were in the crowd applauding Woodburn’s entrance into Anfield’s annals.
“I couldn’t contain myself; I went mad really,” he remembers of that moment when he bettered Owen’s achievement by 98 days. “Everything felt like it was in slow motion before the ball came to me from Gini, then it felt like I was jumping out of my body when I hit it. As soon as I saw Gini lay it off, I knew I would score.”
The execution from the “creative machine, an authentic No. 10” did not surprise Lijnders. “Ben gives defenders no time to breathe, and plays with intelligence, using constantly the space the opposition leaves, arriving in the interesting spaces,” the coach reveals.
“He decides what opposition can and can’t do and is able to create dangerous situations from wherever on the pitch.”
Meanwhile, as decorated players of the club’s past stood and clapped approvingly, one for the future had celebrated as though it was his own finish.
“I was probably as happy as if I’d score it myself,” says Alexander-Arnold, who clung on to Woodburn afterwards. “I know how much work went into that strike – not just in the game, but in the years leading up to that moment.
“It may have just looked like a coincidence that he was there at the back post, but I know it wasn’t because I’ve seen it in training and I’ve seen it in matches before. Everything so far in his career has led to that moment, and I was made up and proud that he took it.”
Alexander-Arnold and Woodburn clearly share a strong bond, the very kind of relationship the Academy strives to foster. They feel responsible to and for each other, are aware they are a source of inspiration for those still at Kirkby, and treat every training session with the first-team like it’s their last – giving absolutely everything they’ve got.
For Liverpool, the kids are more than alright. The club are blessed with two remarkable young players, who are importantly, also remarkable young men.
Images courtesy of Liverpool FC