LIVERPOOL: In a hurricane of emotion and adrenaline at Anfield, the electrifying expectation of Liverpool’s home support spiraling around the stadium, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s mind was still.
“Don’t take your eye off the ball, don’t miss a thing.”
Against all logic, Liverpool had erased their 3-0 deficit against Barcelona in the Champions League.
With the aggregate score poised at 3-3 in the semifinal, second leg, the right-back won a corner on 78 minutes.
He looked up, placed the ball and shaped to take it before Xherdan Shaqiri requested responsibility for the set-piece.
Alexander-Arnold obliged and took slow strides away, before noticing Ernesto Valverde’s men had briefly switched off.
He swiveled toward the ball sharply, delivering an inch-perfect low cross that Divock Origi converted to give Liverpool another crack at continental glory.
Alexander-Arnold, who turned 20 in October and is primed to become the youngest starter in consecutive European Cup finals – he was in the XI that lost 3-1 to Real Madrid in Kiev last year and is currently preparing to meet Tottenham in Madrid on Saturday – strolls through Liverpool’s Waterfront as he recounts the most iconic moment in his career to date.
Manager Jürgen Klopp described the improvisation as “genius” and on the stretch that showcases the city’s majestic stone-clad Three Graces – the Royal Liver Building, The Cunard Bulding and the Port of Liverpool – Alexander-Arnold reveals it was all down to conditioning.
“I always try to be one step ahead of my opponents, because that’s how you get the best out of yourself and the better of them,” he told ESPN. “I’ve thought about that and worked on it since I started at the Academy, but it’s extremely difficult to show it regularly at an elite level. You’re competing against top sides, who are very well prepared and the chance to catch them off guard is limited.
“In that split second against Barca, I noticed the opportunity and I used it.”
While The Trent – a move born out of game intelligence and now forever stitched into the fabric of famous Anfield nights – has been transported to parks, streets and playgrounds across the globe, Alexander-Arnold simply files it under “job done”.
“I haven’t thought about it beyond what it meant for the game itself and the club,” he said. “It’s hard to sit back and reflect on individual moments or the big wins you’ve been involved in. For us, it’s just another good performance, a good game – nothing more, nothing less, because it’s a results business. Our thinking is ‘That one is done, it’s gone, we need to focus on the next challenge,’ because there is always another match or objective around the corner.
“Whether it was a historic goal or not, the main thing was for us to show how good of a team we are, what we believe we’re capable of and to set a marker down in Europe to ensure every opponent has great respect for Liverpool.”
In January, when Alexander-Arnold signed a new five-year contract with the club, Klopp described him as “one of the most relentless professionals I have met when it comes to focusing on getting better each and every day” and had a message for supporters: “I have noticed he doesn’t have a song from the fans yet, so maybe that is something they can work on. Wow, does he deserve one!
“As a player for Liverpool, he is the embodiment of the sentiment ‘We’re never gonna stop.’
“We’re a world-class team, we shouldn’t be afraid to say that.”
Having amassed a club-high 97 points in the league this season only to finish behind Manchester City by the narrowest of margins, Liverpool can add a sixth European Cup on Saturday, just as they had the opportunity to do so in Kiev last May.
Across a two-and-a-half-hour period, which began at the club’s training ground, Melwood, and shuttled across the docks through to the edgy Baltic Triangle area, it was clear that Alexander-Arnold doesn’t wear the scars of the excruciating defeat to Real Madrid a year ago.
Perched on the rooftop of Dockleaf Bar, with Liverpool Cathedral dominating the view to his left, he explained why.
“Being honest, I believed I’d get the opportunity to do it again,” he said. “It has come really soon, but I didn’t doubt that it would. There was nothing indicating that would be my one shot. I felt the club was in a strong, healthy position and it wasn’t like we got to the final by luck and that we had to be grateful for just getting there.
“We earned it. I thought: ‘This is where we deserve to be as a club,’ and I was convinced that there was only going to be a climb up, that we’d get better and come back more solid.”
It has been a cycle of “almosts” for the Merseysiders under Klopp: The League Cup and Europa League final defeats in 2016, the wretched defeat against the Spanish giants in 2018 and the near title miss to Pep Guardiola’s men on May 12.
Yet there is no concern at Liverpool, only conviction that once a trophy is secured, silverware will start to flood in.
“This team is good enough to win leagues, to win Champions Leagues,” Alexander-Arnold said. “We’ve shown that across the last two seasons especially and we just need to get over the line now.
“I’m sure soon as we get one, we’ll be unstoppable and that’s the focus for us: becoming a formidable team that is unbreakable.”
Widely referred to as one of the best right-backs in the world this season, Alexander-Arnold’s moulding for the position was, as he put it, “absolutely horrible”.
The director of Liverpool’s Academy, Alex Inglethorpe, and Neil Critchley, who had been head of the Under-18s, deduced that the midfield anchor had all the characteristics to thrive as an explosive full-back. They had also circled the role as Alexander-Arnold’s clearest pathway to the first-team but in order for the teenager to get there, he’d need to eliminate petulance when things weren’t going his way as well as enhance his endurance both physically and mentally.
On those pitches at the Kirkby base, Alexander-Arnold’s education was punishing by design.
“I hated it,” he said. “It was the worst training conditions I’ve endured. I’ve always loved playing football and doing all the sessions but for those three months, I dreaded it.
“I knew I’d be going into training getting attacked, I’d be getting the best players running at me on repeat, I’d be getting shouted at, I’d be doing one (versus) ones every day, and at the time, I felt I wasn’t at the level of being good enough to handle it. So I’d arrive knowing I wasn’t going to have a positive session and I’d go home and be annoyed. It was frustrating because it was the same cycle for so long and I wasn’t performing at the standard I expected of myself because my mindset wasn’t right. I was in a bad mood all the time and it wasn’t really a healthy state for me to be in – but it worked. It worked wonders.
“It’s testament to Alex and Critch especially because they understood what I needed, that they had to push me really hard and really far so I wouldn’t break when these challenges came in senior games. If I could watch those sessions back and see how I handled it, I’d be embarrassed about how I acted when I lost. I’d be kicking up a fuss, kicking balls away, shouting at people … They knocked that out of me and taught me how to harness a very strong competitive edge in the right way. They taught me I was a better player when I made it personal between myself and the winger. I’d tell myself: ‘No matter what, he can’t beat me.’ Every duel became the biggest battle and I had to win it.
“It was a matter of pride not to let someone get past me.”
A vivid illustration of this came in last season’s 3-0 victory over Man City in the quarterfinal at Anfield, a match Alexander-Arnold spotlighted as “the real spark” for his upward curve.
Guardiola had attempted to overwhelm the young full-back’s flank, assuming him to be the weakness in Liverpool’s defense and posted the swift Leroy Sane high up against him. The visitors funneled the majority of their attacking play through the winger in the first-leg, but Alexander-Arnold continuously stifled him and even managed to thwart David Silva converting City’s best chance.
“They didn’t create the high number of chances they do normally because we defended in a lot of moments outstandingly good,” Klopp analysed, offering a fundamental reason for that. “Trent had a fantastic game.”
MARCUS RASHFORD. WILFRIED ZAHA. SANE.
Trent is rattling off opponents that have been the most menacing before he zeros in on the tormentor-in-chief.
“I played away against Eden Hazard this season for the first time directly and that was incredibly difficult,” he said. “I thought he was the most talented winger I’ve come up against – special, unbelievable strength and acceleration. He is very hard to keep quiet.
“In the Premier League, most of the time when you’re lining up, the opposition’s best players are their wingers with a few exceptions. They’re the fastest, the most dangerous. Robbo (Andy Robertson) and I always joke that we’re fortunate to have Mo (Salah) and Sadio (Mane) on the same team as us, because they can keep full-backs up at night.
“Jordi Alba was really hard to defend against too. In the first half, he just wouldn’t stop going, his running was relentless. I’ve never played against a full-back like that before – he just kept wanting to go past me and was getting back. It’s good to know what makes me feel uncomfortable, so I can use it against other full-backs.”
Extended time in Alexander-Arnold’s company reinforces Klopp’s assertion that he encapsulates the “We’re never gonna stop” line in Liverpool’s Allez, Allez, Allez Champions League anthem.
While his dimpled, soft face still shows the boy, his mindset speaks to his maturity. Trent is engaged, thoughtfully mapping his answers and there is already an intensity about him that could be felt in similar settings with Steven Gerrard. He is serious with a steely determination that drips through every facet of his life.
He doesn’t dwell on high points, instead digging through the kind of contests most would want to permanently delete in order to extract lessons from them.
“It’s important to realise what you’ve done well in your good games and hold onto that, but what really shapes you as a player is what you take away from the nightmare matches,” he said. “(Academy director) Alex Inglethorpe told me once that the real mistake is not learning from your mistake. If you understand your error and work on it, you gain a strength.
“When I have a bad game, I dissect it in every detail. What did I do during the preparation? What was my mindset going into it?
“It’s important for me to understand what works well in terms of routines and how I condition my mind. I’m learning to personalise and perfect my preparation.”
Alexander-Arnold’s function as a right-back has often been discussed by fans and former players as a short-term solution before he reverts to the centre of the pitch.
But given his excellence on the defensive flank, would he want to remain there and try to become the world’s undisputed best in the position?
“I just want to win trophies more than anything and it doesn’t matter where I am on the pitch,” he said. “Playing for the club I love is more important than any position. I’m a right-back now and I want to be the best at it.
“Just as Ashley Cole did when I was growing up, I want to change the way full-backs are thought of along with Robbo. We want to show that full-backs often influence a game a lot more than positions that are traditionally thought of as the most prestigious. It’s a valuable role as Klopp and Guardiola have both said and it’s certainly one of the most demanding. We are measured equally by how we attack and how we defend more than any other position. You’ve got to get assists, you’ve got to keep clean sheets.
“We have the obligation to get forward and it’s non-negotiable to get back – you have to do both equally well. I hope we can help change the idea that no kids want to grow up and be a fullback.”
While the rain stubbornly bucketed down in Kowloon during the preseason tour of Hong Kong in 2017, Klopp issued a challenge to Alexander-Arnold that he privately acknowledged the youngster would weather.
“Trent, what potential!,” the 51-year-old said. “He has to improve on his defending now though, that is the aim. Yes, he is a kid, but the moment he can defend like a man, he can play regularly in the Premier League. As long as he defends like a kid and attacks like a man, then you have only half of this amazing talent.
“I cannot change this – only he can. He knows and is excited about the improvement he can make.”
Fast forward to 2019 and Alexander-Arnold, who now holds the Premier League assist record for a defender with 12 this season, was part of the meanest rearguard in England’s top flight.
“The manager has got so much out of me,” he said. “He is demanding and never allows you to get comfortable. He expects to consistently see more from his players, which suits me because I want to go beyond my limits.”
Liverpool’s backroom team enthuse about Alexander-Arnold’s knowledge of when and how to defend on the front foot in midfield areas, jumping tight with a wide man or full-back and protecting the half space – the areas on the pitch between the wide and central zones that teams in possession look to exploit. They’ve observed a continual upward trend in how he defends against the ball and closes the last line.
His offensive might is crucial weaponry in Klopp’s aggressive blueprint, as is his ability to operate with direction and take responsibility on the pitch.
“I’ve definitely progressed defensively and I’ve spent a lot of time working through all the situations I know I can get better in,” Alexander-Arnold said. “Playing against some of the best players in the world on a daily basis in training is massive for me, because I’m pushing myself to the maximum in every session. We’ve got a group that are constantly searching for improvement so I go into training knowing it’s an opportunity to get better. I tell myself: ‘Don’t waste a day.’
“The senior players have given me the same message – Milly (James Milner) especially. He always says I should make the most of my talent and get everything out of the game that I can because it all goes so quickly.
“I don’t want to look back with regrets. I don’t want to think I could have been a better player, that I could’ve put in more effort.”
The Scouser, who finally has a fan chant that references his local heritage, speaks with such authority on the responsibility he feels to win. Having repeatedly declared his ambition to captain his boyhood club in the future, such comments offer a snapshot of someone who is capable, too.
“We’re at a place where we demand silverware from ourselves,” he said. “It’s not something we shy away from or are scared of: we’re one of the best sides in the world. We can’t put too much pressure on our first major season of competing on two big fronts, but ultimately, it’s the objective we’re striving towards.
“If we don’t win a lot of silverware over the next few years then something has gone massively wrong, because with this manager, with the way the team is looking, with the way that we’ve been playing – it’s just incredible and we will keep going and going and going. That will be rewarded.”
As a six-year-old then already tied to Liverpool’s Academy, Alexander-Arnold watched the magic of Istanbul – “a night no one will forget and that showed the character of Liverpool, the team and the city” – unfold in the family home, two minutes from Melwood.
He remembers the intoxication of the victory parade, after Liverpool’s comeback from 3-0 down against Milan, with the Reds winning on penalties, snaking past his three-bedroom duplex and for the first time in this interview, the An Hour for Others ambassador allows himself to drink in just how far he has come and how rapidly that has happened.
It is clear that he is not glowing on an individual level, but for the people he gets to share these experiences with. His mother, Diane, has been an “extension of Liverpool’s coaching staff”, while his father, Michael, has preached education, preparation and strategy. Older brother Tyler, four years his senior, is Alexander-Arnold’s “deep-thinking, intelligent” manager. Marcell, three years his junior, was his roommate at the West Derby house, which they only moved out of when he was 17.
“I wouldn’t be the person and player I am today without them,” Alexander-Arnold said. “I’d be a million miles away from it. They’ve been so supportive and influential – and this is no exaggeration – they have sacrificed everything for me. They have sacrificed themselves: Their dreams and their hopes so they could make mine a reality. They’ve been there for me when times have been hard, when I’ve been down. And they’ve celebrated the happiest moments with me as well.
“I never want that to change. I absolutely love going home to them and just being Trent.”
Alexander-Arnold thinks about “his people” too. The ones who, like him, devote themselves to Liverpool – albeit on the terraces. He is fiercely proud of being Scouse and relishes representing his city on a worldwide stage.
“There’s a difference to this place,” he said. “People who aren’t from Liverpool probably think we’re over the top, but that’s because we’re really passionate about the things we love. We stand united on important issues and we fight for what we believe in with everything we’ve got.”
He has a tight bond with those who flock to Anfield, realising they possess the power to lift Liverpool and act as kryptonite even to the game’s greatest teams and players.
“Without the fans, what we did against Barcelona would have been an impossible task to pull off,” Alexander-Arnold said. “The performance was a thank you to them, to show them they are special, that they do make a difference. It was appreciation for every single individual that comes to watch us, that gives up their time and their money to support us around the country and the continent, that love this club and believe in it even during tough times. And for the supporters who can’t get to the matches, but wake up at strange times and go out of their way to follow us throughout a season.”
The biggest show of gratitude would be Liverpool turning almost into an absolute in Madrid, soaked in champagne and confetti as they pass around the European Cup.
“This time we know what it’s all about, we understand everything around the game so we’ll be more prepared in that respect,” Alexander-Arnold said.
“We’re a more complete team. During the course of this season, we’ve shown a variety of ways to win and to conduct ourselves. When we score first, we’re very hard to break down. If we need a late goal, we can produce it. If we need to manage a period of a game and take the sting out of it, we know what to do.
“If we’re if we’re not at 100 per cent, Spurs can hurt us. But we will be leaving everything we’ve got on that pitch.”
This article first appeared on ESPN.com.
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