One of the shock successes of Liverpool’s pre-season was the involvement of Ben Woodburn, who three years after his last appearance could be in line for a revival.
When Jurgen Klopp named his initial 34-man squad for the Reds’ pre-season training camp in Austria, Woodburn was an understandable inclusion given his experience.
Despite his age, the Wales international was relative veteran compared to the likes of Tyler Morton, Kaide Gordon, Owen Beck and Conor Bradley, having worn the captain’s armband for the under-23s in 2020/21.
The personnel changed as the summer went on, with players coming and going, but despite not featuring in the opening four friendlies against Wacker Innsbruck, Stuttgart, Mainz and Hertha Berlin, Woodburn remained.
It was expected that he was simply involved as a reliable trainer, padding out the numbers in sessions before sitting out of the games to allow those in the first-team picture to build up game time.
But then came the back-to-back clashes with Bologna, with the 21-year-old coming off the bench twice, before following that up with two more substitute appearances against Athletic Club and Osasuna at Anfield.
By the closing 3-1 victory over Osasuna – his longest outing of pre-season at an hour – the perception of Woodburn and his role within Klopp’s squad had changed drastically.
Could a revival really be on the cards for a player deemed down and out after a miserable three years on the books at Liverpool?
Return from the wilderness years
On paper, Woodburn’s loan pathway looked designed to aid his progress into a Premier League player, particularly with a season-long move to Sheffield United in 2018/19.
But after struggling to break into an upwardly mobile Blades side, his deal was terminated midway through the campaign, to be followed by a drop down to League One with Oxford United the following season.
Two separate instances saw Woodburn break both feet while with the U’s, though, restricting him to 16 appearances, with another 11 accrued in a half-season with Blackpool last time out that was impacted by a bout of COVID-19.
Former Liverpool coaches Karl Robinson and Neil Critchley will have been mindful of their role in the player’s development, but unfortunately their hands were tied.
An increase in squad size for the Premier League saw Woodburn named in Klopp’s matchday squad on three occasions in the second half of last season, however, before an eye-catching run in pre-season.
“Ben was unfortunately a little bit injured [at the start of] pre-season, but around this little break he showed up in a top, top way,” Klopp told LFCTV after the win over Osasuna, explaining Woodburn’s absence in the opening friendlies.
“He played I think four, five, six, seven positions. Played right-back, did really well; played midfield, did really well; played wing, did really well; played No. 9, did really well. So that’s good!”
Pepijn Lijnders added in a separate interview: “Like many of the team it didn’t come easy for him, but he has an Anfield future.”
The assistant manager’s vow is particularly interesting given reports of interest from clubs in the Championship as well as in Greece, Denmark and Croatia, as it raises the prospect of a genuine role for Woodburn in 2021/22.
It would be unexpected, but in many ways keeping the No. 58 around for the season ahead would make sense.
Why should Liverpool keep Woodburn?
Klopp already highlighted one of the key factors in the youngster’s versatility: in fact, while it was seen as a problem for Woodburn as he initially looked to carve out his niche, it could now play into his hands.
Across his four outings in pre-season, he played as a central midfielder, a right-back, a defensive midfielder, a left winger and as a centre-forward.
Coming off the bench each time, the academy graduate plugged gaps wherever he was needed, most notably when Curtis Jones was forced off with a head injury against Osasuna, with Woodburn initially slotting into midfield.
It is trait that Klopp values highly, and Lijnders’ praise for the utility man detailed just why they believe he is capable of operating a varied role.
“The energy he brings to the team is exactly what we stand for,” the Dutchman continued.
“[He is] football smart, a good mover and he unbalances the opposition constantly with the ball but also with his movement off it.”
It is a quality that may have seen Woodburn struggle to stand out in the more agricultural game in League One, but he is a hugely intelligent player with an appreciation of space and how it can give him an advantage.
This has allowed him to slot in seamlessly within Liverpool’s training sessions both at Kirkby and throughout pre-season, with there a sharpness to his approach on and off the ball.
While he has spent plenty of time with the academy sides since his historic breakthrough in 2016, it is worth noting that Woodburn has now been in and around Klopp’s squad for five years now, and is well-versed in the manager’s methods.
He is clearly well-liked within the dressing room, and shares a close relationship with one of the squad’s leaders in Trent Alexander-Arnold, while he can play a valuable role in helping youngsters like Morton and Gordon make the step up.
The homegrown problem
Crucially, this summer sees Woodburn eligible as a senior homegrown player for the first time, having turned 21 in October – he is younger than Caoimhin Kelleher and only 15 months older than Jones, despite having been around the squad much longer.
With Liverpool considering deals for both Nat Phillips and Ben Davies before the end of the transfer window, Klopp could face a registration issue if he is to name a full 25-man squad for the Premier League due to the requirement of eight homegrown players.
Keeping Woodburn would relieve the problem, allowing Phillips to be sold for big money or Davies be granted a move to play regular first-team football, while providing a well-rounded option for the first team in a number of positions.
He’s not quite the new James Milner, and expectations should remain low considering his lack of minutes at senior level.
But there are far worse options than Woodburn staying a Liverpool player at least for the final year of his contract – perhaps he even could earn an extension if he keeps it up.
If not, he should be in a far better position as a free agent next summer than he is on the back of a muted Blackpool loan this time around.