High hopes for Ben Woodburn on loan at Sheffield United have quickly faded, with just eight appearances in three months for the Liverpool youngster.
Woodburn made his debut for the Reds two years ago on November 26, replacing Gini Wijnaldum in the closing stages of the 2-0 win at home to Sunderland.
Three days later, he netted his first and only senior goal for the club, becoming Liverpool’s youngest-ever goalscorer at 17 years and 45 days as he helped seal a 2-0 victory over Leeds United.
First-team appearances have been scarce since then, and in August it was deemed the right move to send Woodburn to Sheffield United on a season-long loan.
Speaking on his exit, Jurgen Klopp told the club’s official website that “both sides will benefit a lot” from the deal, after the 19-year-old spent “two years not having a real team.”
But three months into the season, and Woodburn still isn’t a staple of Chris Wilder’s side, and Klopp may even be considering a recall in January.
We spoke to Sheffield Star journalist Danny Hall (@dannyhall04) to get an insight into Woodburn’s struggle for game time at Bramall Lane.
As an established Wales international fondly regarded by one of world football’s leading managers, Woodburn’s move to United was considered something of a coup.
The Reds had turned down interest from Aston Villa before sanctioning his switch to Bramall Lane, with Wilder telling sufc.co.uk he had signed “an exciting player with undoubted quality.”
“He’s been involved with Liverpool throughout their pre-season and I’m delighted they’ve trusted us with one of their outstanding young prospects, who is a full international as a teenager,” he said.
“It’s his first loan move and I’m sure it will be a great one for all parties.”
Wilder’s stance reflected that of Klopp, and for Woodburn himself the motivation was simple, stressing that he was “coming out on loan to play games,” looking to take over from Bournemouth-bound David Brooks.
“I can’t wait for the weekend, I’m looking forward to scoring and creating goals and winning games,” he added, ahead of his debut against Swansea City.
But unfortunately, as Hall explains, United supporters’ initial excitement over Woodburn’s arrival quickly dissolved as he stuttered through his early outings.
“Blades fans were understandably excited when Woodburn’s move to United was confirmed, with many believing he was further advanced than the departing David Brooks and would help United deal with the loss,” Hall told This is Anfield.
“He arrived with a lot of fanfare and ironically looked at his most dangerous when he came off the bench at Middlesbrough [in his second game], with United already 3-0 down.
“A decent cameo against QPR led to a first start in the cup against Hull, but he didn’t cover himself in any glory and he was dragged at half-time in the next game against Norwich.”
Failing to Catch the Eye
The Blades have enjoyed an excellent start to the campaign under Wilder, sitting fourth after 17 games, level with third-placed Leeds, one point behind Middlesbrough in second and three off Norwich in pole position.
Only the leaders (10) have won more games than United (nine), and after finishing 10th last time out they can harbour genuine hopes of challenging for promotion to the Premier League.
This, perhaps surprisingly, has made things more difficult for Woodburn, as while he has experience of playing top-level football at Liverpool, his youth ensures he is a gamble for Wilder.
Furthermore, he has so far failed to make an impression when given an opportunity—beginning on his debut, when former Reds academy team-mate Yan Dhanda scored a late winner for the Swans.
Promising cameos against Boro and QPR—after which Hall concluded he would “be a big player for United”—were followed by a struggle in a League Cup defeat to Hull.
And as Hall explained, in his first and only league start so far, he was substituted at half-time at home to Norwich.
He has largely played his natural position, as an attacking midfielder behind two strikers, in a side whose style of play gives him freedom to create, but it hasn’t come off for Woodburn.
Since being hooked midway through the 2-1 win over the Canaries, the teenager has played just 27 minutes of football for the Blades, and was omitted from the matchday squad for five consecutive games.
Addressing this struggle for game time, Hall suggested that a hardline stance from Wilder, and a failure to stand out in training, have seen Woodburn understandably marginalised.
“It’s difficult to point out if anything has ‘gone wrong’ so far, per se,” he proffered.
“Obviously all three parties would have liked him to have had more of an impact, but United are fourth in the Championship without him and the players in front of him in the pecking order have been performing well.
“Chris Wilder has gone on record numerous times about players being picked on form rather than favour, and it was clear that Woodburn would get no special treatment here because he came from Liverpool.
“Simply, he didn’t perform on the field so dropped out, and obviously hasn’t been pulling up any trees in training or he’d be more involved with the matchday squad.
“In some ways, I admire Wilder’s stance on the matter because it’s no secret of the financial penalties imposed by Liverpool every time one of their players doesn’t play.
“That can lead to artificial scenarios on loan, where a young player doesn’t deserve to play but does anyway because the loan club can’t afford him not to.
“None of that here. Woodburn will play on merit, and nothing else.”
Should Woodburn Be Recalled?
In total, Woodburn has played just 244 minutes of football for United, averaging 30.5 minutes on the field per game and just 81.3 minutes a month.
This comes after a liminal season that saw him barely feature for the Reds at any level, with his most regular gig being with the U19s in the UEFA Youth League.
His most notable appearance since coming off against Norwich came, instead, for the Liverpool U23s, returning to play alongside familiar faces in a 3-2 defeat to Derby in October.
Wilder described this as “an opportunity to get him some minutes,” having explained earlier in the month that “everyone is happy with the situation” and “it’s down to him” to earn his place.
However, according to the Liverpool Echo, the Reds did negotiate a recall option into their deal with United, and if his lack of action continues it could be considered in January.
Hall, though, still believes there’s an opportunity for Woodburn to fight for his chance at Bramall Lane.
“Will he return in January? There’s every chance, although a lot could happen between now and then,” he opined.
“I personally think there’s a little bit more to come from him, it just depends if he can show it when his opportunity comes, either through injury or loss of form for another player or simply ripping it up in training.
“Long-term, this also might be good for the player.
“He’s understandably been hailed as a star of the future for both club and country, but will come out of this loan—either in January or at the end of the season—having learned the lesson that simply being Ben Woodburn, from Liverpool, won’t be enough to earn him a prolonged career in professional football.”
This notion is a pertinent one, as though Woodburn is struggling for minutes at United, loan moves for young players can be as much about growing off the pitch, in a new environment.
There is no guarantee, for example, that if he were to return to Liverpool he would challenge for a first-team role—particularly as a midfielder, where Klopp’s squad is well stocked.
For now, Woodburn’s battle in Sheffield could be seen as a vital learning experience, as even shifting him to another loan club has the same risks.
But it is difficult to ignore that two years on from his triumphant breakthrough at Anfield, he is no closer to proving himself an option for his parent club.
Thanks to Danny Hall for his invaluable contribution. You can follow Danny on Twitter @dannyhall04.