‘Wow!” Trent Alexander-Arnold exclaims before, slowly, he repeats the question out loud. “When was the last time I was genuinely nervous?” His eyes open wide as if this simple query might be one of the most probing he has heard in a long time. Alexander-Arnold falls silent as he dredges through a memory which is pin-prick sharp when recalling intricate details from Liverpool games or describing his past emotions.
We have talked for 40 minutes, with Alexander-Arnold offering riveting company, and he has spoken incisively about much more complex subjects. He has discussed the mentality of Michael Jordan and the same “ache” he feels in his desire to improve and keep winning. We have considered the lessons of defeat and the way in which Alexander-Arnold believes that, on the pitch, “I can see things others can’t see”.
He has suggested that no other team could match Liverpool’s efforts in this campaign. On Saturday night, against Real Madrid in Paris, they aim to win their third trophy of the season and the Champions League for a seventh time. This follows a thrilling Premier League battle with Manchester City which he compares to Lewis Hamilton’s gruelling drivers’ championship struggle against Max Verstappen last year.
We have revisited the pain of the last time Liverpool faced Real in a Champions League final when, in 2018, the Spanish giants were too streetwise. Alexander-Arnold has also spoken out against deprivation in his home city and identified the key question to ask as we discuss Liverpool fans booing the national anthem.
But he seems stumped when trying to remember the last time he was nervous. He then smiles. “It would have to be the last Champions League final I played in,” he says as he relives the night Liverpool beat Spurs 2-0 in 2019. “That was the last time I was properly nervous. Nerves did feature when I was younger but the more experience you gain, the less nerves you have.”
Saturday marks his third Champions League final at the age of 23 – a remarkable fact which echoes his voracious ambition and rare vision. “If I put myself in his shoes,” he says as he turns back to Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest athlete in history who seemed almost angry in his quest to win a sixth NBA championship in 1998, “I really understand why he was like that. I don’t feel that way with my teammates now but I definitely did that when I was young and playing with local kids. I got really frustrated because people weren’t on my wavelength or couldn’t understand why I wanted to win so badly. I still find it frustrating in training games because I haven’t won.”
So it still hurts to lose a five-a-side game? “Yeah,” he says intently. “That hurts as much as a game on the weekend.”
Alexander-Arnold remembers how, when he was being converted from a midfield player to a right-back at the Liverpool academy, he would become so furious when he made a mistake he would boot the ball to the other side of the training pitch. He would be made to collect it and now he says: “I’ve learned to channel that emotion. I wouldn’t say I’ve lost it because it came out of a desire, an ache, to get better.”
Ache is an interesting word. “It is because it’s like a pain inside I need to let out. Now it hurts but I can control it because I’ve always found it easy to improve, to challenge myself. I’ve never felt satisfied. I’ve never felt good enough – not in the sense that I don’t think I’m talented and good at what I do. It’s just I’ve never felt this is enough, and I know I never will. I need to find the next level, to push myself harder, to get better.”
The way Alexander-Arnold has redefined the role of a right-back, so that he is a playmaker and fluid source of creative intelligence, is even more interesting. When he picks out passes and finds space does it feel as if time slows for him? He nods. “I play the game at my own pace and if I need a little more time to find the right option, I’ll do that. The main thing for me is I always feel I can see things others can’t see. And the more you can see, the more options you have. I would say being able to judge the right option, and which one hurts the opposition most, is something I’ve got that other people don’t have.”
In black-and-white these words might seem arrogant. In person they sound like calm conviction. Alexander-Arnold has the look of a footballer aiming for the dizzying heights. “There’ve definitely been a few games where I’ve come off the pitch and thought: ‘Wow!’ I think back to Man City at home in the Champions League [when Liverpool won 3-0 in 2018]. I’d gone through a couple of tough games and there were a lot of question marks because they were the best team and we were still in transition.
“I remember Leicester away on Boxing Day [in 2019 when he made two assists and scored as Liverpool won 4-0]. I remember coming off the pitch thinking: ‘Wow, that was an incredible game and a clean sheet.’ Chelsea in the FA Cup final this year was another big one for me.”
Saturday night would be the right time for another. “Yeah, hopefully,” he says with a smile. “We might have to edit this and say the Champions League final as well.”
The memory of losing to Real in Kyiv in 2018 is vivid. “That Champions League final loss was our biggest lesson as a team. We got taught exactly how to win a game, how to win trophies. If you look at our run to that final we didn’t really win games. We just outscored the opposition. There’s a difference because a win is gathering control of the game. You know exactly how to win the game and you execute it. That’s very different to just outscoring the opposition and there’s no real control.
“I don’t think we played a bad game [losing 3-1 in 2018]. We started very well and then Mo Salah got injured. They controlled it from that point on. There were a few individual mistakes and unfortunately it was from the goalkeeper [Loris Karius]. So we conceded two and there was also one of the best goals in a Champions League final ever.”
Did he get close to Gareth Bale as he scored his incredible bicycle kick? Alexander-Arnold laughs. “I was close enough to see it coming in the top corner. It was one of them where it’s like: ‘What’s just happened?’”
He recalls how he and Bale were stuck together in a drug-testing room for almost an hour after the game. Did they talk much? “No,” Alexander-Arnold says firmly.
Knowing how much he hates losing, how was the following morning? “Growing up you think if you lose the Champions League final your heart is going to be broken, you’ll be in tears for days. But it wasn’t like that. It hurt – especially seeing them lift the trophy and having to give them a guard of honour. But I thought: ‘I’m 19 and with the players and the manager we have we’ll be back. Next time there’s no way I’m losing.’ I knew we would come back stronger.”
He appreciates Real Madrid’s tumultuous journey to this year’s final, coming back from seemingly impossible situations game after game. “It’s an incredible story but I always strip it back to 90 minutes of football. It’s no different from the first game of the season against Norwich away. It’s the same rules, the same objective. Of course it’s another Champions League final but we need to earn it.”
Did finishing second to Manchester City, with 92 points, feel like a defeat? Alexander-Arnold pauses. “Yeah, it’s still a defeat. But we’ve done something I don’t think any other team could achieve this season. No other team but us could get to three finals and take the title race to the last day. We’ve already got two trophies and we missed out by one point to a team who are so, so good and they only ended up with one trophy. Potentially we will end up with three so it can’t be that big a loss.”
Does he regret that this brilliant Liverpool team share an era with City – or does the magnitude of their rivalry drive them to new peaks? “It works both ways. Part of me thinks that, without them, my trophy cabinet would look a lot fuller. You would think four Prems in five years, without them, are up for grabs. But, without them, we wouldn’t be hitting consistency levels never seen before in the Premier League.”
Alexander-Arnold is part of Liverpool’s captaincy group and the fact that his teammates voted for him has made the role “quite touching … and I’ve enjoyed the responsibility”. He points out that Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s unequivocal leader, “sometimes will stand apart, watching and observing, and you never quite know what he’s thinking. But when he speaks, you listen. He doesn’t waste words. He speaks with a purpose.”
The internet likes to say that Alexander-Arnold can’t defend but he is at the heart of the way in which Klopp wants Liverpool to play. “It’s a team sport so he understands that there has to be – I won’t say limitations – but parameters for what I do. He’s talked me through my defensive responsibilities but he gives me freedom to roam, drifting and finding the right position. It feels like he sets up the team to allow me to do what I’m best at – create, find passes and hurt the opposition.”
Within the Liverpool sanctum the love for Alexander-Arnold stretches from staff in the canteen who appreciate his grounded nature to Salah who feels his partner down the right is not appreciated as he should be in England. Alexander-Arnold loves being part of a team but, showing his passion for Formula One, he stresses that the rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen grips him most. “The mentality of someone doing something on their own intrigues me. I want to know how that would feel. You have a team which plays a big part but you get into that car alone. The mistakes are on you, the wins are on you. The highs would be better than a team sport because all the focus is on you. But the lows would be even lower. I definitely want to know how all that feels.”
In Paris his individual clash with Vinícius Júnior could be decisive. But, away from football, Alexander-Arnold’s social conscience drives him. Coming from West Derby in Liverpool, where 34% of children live in poverty, his commitment to his Football for Change initiative is obvious.
“There’s always that responsibility on people in a privileged position to try and make a difference,” he says. “In Liverpool we believe you need to look after your own people if the government aren’t funding them. I grew up in them areas so the responsibility is also on me to help make sure they are looked after.”
Liverpool fans have been criticised for booing the national anthem but Alexander-Arnold stresses that we need to explore the reasons. “It’s the city, as a whole, not just Liverpool fans. They remember what the city’s been through and how Liverpool feels regarding the establishment and how we’ve been treated over the years. It’s that feeling of being let down by people in charge and that we haven’t been treated justly.”
Before his Liverpool teams stepped out to play, Bill Shankly used to say: “Don’t let them down.” Alexander-Arnold nods. “I know what this means. It’s a balance of not letting them down and also wanting to make them proud. We have that responsibility when we put on the shirt. We’re doing this for the people who put the shirt on at home and walk to the game, the people who put the shirt on for the seven-hour bus journey to Wembley, the people who spend so much getting to Paris this weekend.”
We are close now to the Champions League final and I ask Alexander-Arnold again if there’s a chance that, on Saturday night, the nerves will finally return. “Who knows?” he says with a grin. “But I don’t think so. There will be excitement – but no nerves. Everyone is going to be watching this game and that excites me. That motivates me.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism