Twelve months ago, Ben Woodburn has just finished taking his GCSE exams when he called into Liverpool’s first-team ahead of our pre-season programme. He was the standout performer in our Under-18 squad at the time, a player of whom much was expected but perhaps not at that stage of his burgeoning career.
Since then he’s become a permanent fixture at Melwood under Jurgen Klopp, made his Premier League debut, become the youngest goal scorer in Liverpool’s long and storied history and has been called up to the Welsh senior squad at international level.
Not bad for a youngster who won’t turn eighteen until October.
He’s in the thick of our preparations for the 2017/2018 season now, a familiar face in the first-team squad who you can’t help but be impressed by every time he steps onto the pitch. Alongside Trent Alexander-Arnold, Woodburn looks to be a star of our future, a youngster with every chance of establishing himself as a first-team regular if his development continues on its current upward trajectory.
READ MORE: Liverpool confirm £8m Andy Robertson signing
And with Liverpool hopefully facing a far more congested fixture list next season, it is interesting to ponder how prominently Woodburn might feature given that he is far less of an unknown quantity now than he was a year ago.
A season spent amongst the first-team squad, training with the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana every day and experiencing first-hand the pressures of playing for a club that carries the level of expectation that Liverpool does can only have been hugely beneficial to him.
He was used more sparingly by Klopp than Alexander-Arnold was but the progression he has made in such a relatively short space of time, effectively bypassing the Under-23 squad, has been considerable.
Whereas he was a regular on our substitutes bench last season, the addition of Mohamed Salah this summer will likely affect how often Woodburn features in our matchday squads, particularly in the Premier League.
But one thing we are seeing evidence of in the early stages of this pre-season is Woodburn’s versatility.
While he has played predominantly in attack during his burgeoning career so far, we’re seeing him deployed in midfield by Klopp, a position that he did feature in when he was allowed to play Under-23 games last season and one that suits him well.
With his low centre of gravity and excellent close control, he looks a similar kind of player to Lallana; he turns on the ball well, is combative in and out of possession, looks to link our play and his distribution is intelligent. It is a role that perhaps he might make his own in the long term.
His performance against Crystal Palace in Hong Kong on Wednesday exemplified why he remains a part of the first-team picture. In a competitive game where our players would be a bit sharper in their decision making, he might have had a couple of assists.
With the pace of Salah and Daniel Sturridge ahead of him, we saw Woodburn play excellent measured passes into their feet, spotting the runs they were making and picking them out so that they didn’t have to break stride and check back to receive the ball.
Following the game, you could really get a sense of how excited Klopp is to have a youngster of Woodburn’s ability and potential at his disposal. The manager said that it is too early to in Woodburn’s career to tie him down to one position, to define him as a midfielder or an attacker, but that playing in the middle of the pitch will “help him to learn the highest level of football under pressure.”
As intriguing as it is to speculate over and then know which players Klopp wants to recruit in the transfer market to push Liverpool forward, this time of year is also about opportunities for those players who are either on the fringes of the first-team squad or have impressed in the academy. Having taken advantage of his initial opportunity last year, we’re now watching Woodburn develop his own game so that it becomes more well-rounded.
He may only be seventeen now but he’s probably ahead of schedule in terms of where he might have been expected to be at this stage of his development; anyone who saw him play for the Under-18’s would have marked Woodburn down as a player worth being excited about, perhaps without the fanfare and expectation that someone like Raheem Sterling developed under when he was learning his craft at Kirkby, but a player that clearly had something special about him nonetheless.
I think the way in which Klopp has managed our young players has been excellent, the perfect blend of pragmatism and optimism.
And I believe it is that approach that has been so instrumental in the fast acclimation of our young players to life in Liverpool’s first-team. Woodburn and Alexander-Arnold are not treated as boys among men and the standard of their performances over the past twelve months have belied their young ages.
It is impossible not to be encouraged by a seventeen-year-old that doesn’t look at all out of place in a midfield alongside Jordan Henderson and Lallana, regardless of whether it is in a competitive game or not. It speaks to Woodburn’s maturity and self-belief that he is not, and has never looked, fazed by playing in a team packed with experienced internationals.
And I love that he always looks to play his game rather than try too hard to impress; if a forward pass is on, he’ll play the ball, if not then he keeps calm and takes the most sensible option. He plays with the same composure for the first-team that he does when he has played for the Under-18 and Under-23 teams and that speaks volumes for his attitude to the game and confidence in his own ability.
GOAL! Ben Woodburn! pic.twitter.com/55gTp9nJTT
— Anfield HQ (@AnfieldHQ) July 12, 2017
With Klopp having said this summer that he will rotate his squad more next season given the additional games we are hoping to play in the Champions League, perhaps there will be opportunities for Woodburn in the Premier League. But you would expect him to feature heavily in the domestic cups.
Where he might play in those first-team opportunities remains to be seen. I am really enjoying watching in this central role he has had so far in pre-season. I actually think that it utilises more of his best attributes than when he plays out wide but I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen him in those positions too.
But playing in midfield allows him to be on the ball more and that is when you see and understand just why he has spent the past year at Melwood rather than Kirkby, why he is regarded by so highly by all of the coaches that have worked with him and watched his development at close quarters.
Like with any young player, it would be unwise to burden Woodburn with too much expectation at this point. But there is no doubt that he is leading the way for a group of young players currently progressing through to Liverpool’s first-team from the academy that, in my opinion, is the most exciting we’ve seen at the club in several years.
Klopp may not yet know what Woodburn’s best position is but he did say on Wednesday that he is happy simply to have the player in his squad.
That is a sentiment that every Liverpool supporter must echo .