There was a moment, as most of Liverpool’s players drew themselves up in line in the middle of the field, ready to offer a guard of honour to Tottenham Hotspur, when Trent Alexander-Arnold was far away, all by himself, in a world all of his own.
In front of him was a massed bank of red: Liverpool’s fans stretching forward, pouring over one another, clawing at the air, desperate to be as close as possible to the players who had beaten Tottenham, 2-0, the goals coming early and late, and made their team champion of Europe for a sixth time.
Alexander-Arnold is one of them, really, deep down. He grew up in Liverpool, supporting the club, a few miles from Anfield, the team’s famed home. His jubilation was their jubilation. His dream was their dream. There were thousands of eyes upon him, but it felt, still, like a private reverie. And so, without thinking, Alexander-Arnold started to dance: bouncing up and down, kicking his legs and pumping his fists to a rhythm only he could hear, and then running the width of the field and back again, the energy burning away inside him.
Only once that was done did he sprint back to his teammates, to join the line that would applaud the Spurs players as they trudged onto the podium to collect their runner-up medals, those tokens of regret. Only then did Alexander-Arnold make the slow walk himself, those few seconds that he will remember for the rest of his life. First, though, he had wanted to commune with his fans, his people. Sometimes, you want to be with your own.
Even amid the tumult of a Champions League final, even in all the delirium for Liverpool and its fans and the despair etched on the faces of Tottenham’s players, it is worth pausing to consider Alexander-Arnold’s career, because it is the best way to understand how it is that Liverpool now stands as winner of the Champions League.
Alexander-Arnold is only 20. It was only a little more than two years ago that he made his first start in the Premier League, a surprise selection for a game against Manchester United. As ever, youth was given its chance by dearth of options; Liverpool’s season was hardly memorable: a fourth-place finish qualifying as the meeting of a target, rather than a great triumph.
By the start of the next season, Alexander-Arnold was Juergen Klopp’s first choice right away. Again, necessity was the midwife to invention. Nathaniel Clyne, the senior choice for the position, had an injury. Alexander-Arnold stepped in, presumably on a temporary basis.
That was the summer of 2017. The trajectory of his career since – the trajectory of Liverpool’s rise – is quite extraordinary. Alexander-Arnold ended that season as a Champions League finalist, sprawled on the field in Kiev, ruing Liverpool’s loss to Real Madrid.
He went to the World Cup with England, helped Liverpool mount a thrilling title challenge, and then – at the end of only his second full season as a senior player – went back to the Champions League final. And this time, thanks to an early, controversial penalty from Mohamed Salah and a late, trophy-clinching, nerve-settling goal from Divock Origi, he ended it not just on his feet, but dancing.
It has, by any measure, been an extraordinary rise, both in gradient and speed. But then, so too has Liverpool’s: a team that had barely even qualified for the Champions League since 2010 – just one, faintly embarrassing campaign in 2014 – has now reached two finals in two years, and won one of them. Only Real Madrid and AC Milan have a more garlanded European history than Liverpool, a better record in the game’s biggest club competition.
Liverpool’s players know precisely who to thank for that. After the medals had been handed out in Madrid’s Estadio Metropolitano, after the trophy had been lifted and the glitter cannons exploded and the fireworks illuminated the night sky, after the players had celebrated with the fans, just as things were winding down, Georginio Wijnaldum noticed someone was missing.
Klopp was sneaking away, back toward the centre circle. Wijnaldum chased after him, together with Virgil van Dijk, and hauled him back. The rest of the team closed in. They picked up their manager, hoisted him on their shoulders and marched him back to the fans. Once there, they bounced him up and down – no easy task; he’s a big man – as a broad grin spread across his face.
Klopp had, for some reason, picked up a reputation as a nearly man: a manager who could take a team so far, but was destined to fail at the last hurdle. The fact he had won two German championships, and a German Cup, did not seem to count. He lost a Europa League final with Liverpool. He lost a League Cup final with Liverpool. He lost a Champions League final with Liverpool. He was unlucky; it had been decreed.
That would have been the story had Liverpool lost, of course, as it might well have done: For all the drama of this Champions League season, this was an anti-climactic final. Salah’s penalty – after a harsh handball decision against Moussa Sissoko in the match’s first minute – seemed to set the nerves on edge, and sap the noise from the crowd. Liverpool was careless, disjointed; Spurs, slowly and surely, started to assert themselves.
As the clock ticked, Liverpool’s lead looked fragile. Alisson Becker, the club’s goalkeeper, had to make a string of saves, a one-man resistance against a white tide. Klopp’s curse seemed to be coming back, yet further proof that he lacked some crucial ingredient that would make him a winner. And then, the goal came: for all the Spurs pressure, Liverpool scored it. Klopp would have his trophy. He would break the curse that had never been a curse.
That does not diminish the work Mauricio Pochettino has done at Tottenham, of course. The fact that Spurs were here at all ranks as one of the most remarkable managerial feats of recent years. So, too, defeat for Liverpool should not have been allowed to disguise all that Klopp has done, the transformation he has overseen: taking a club that had started to drift, that had lost its sense of purpose a little, and turning it back into a genuine force in England – and in Europe.
Alexander-Arnold, the player who ends his seasons in Champions League finals, is not the only story that illustrates the seismic change in the club’s fortunes. Andy Robertson joined Liverpool in the summer of 2017, too. He has never lost a home game for the club. Origi might have been loaned out to Huddersfield Town last summer; he now has scored a decisive goal in the biggest game in club soccer.
There is a myth in sports that nobody remembers who finishes second. It is not true. Spurs fans will remember all that their team has done this season for years, for decades: the chaos against Manchester City, the comeback against Ajax, that moment of pure disbelieving silence after Lucas Moura had carried the team to the Champions League final. The teams Tottenham beat along the way, and those who watched, will remember, too. Defeat may leave a bitter taste, but in time even that may fade. The journey matters, not only the destination.
What nobody remembers, though, is the manner of a victory. What people will remember are the feelings: the ecstasy of a goal, the euphoria of a win, the relief of a final whistle, the bliss of the celebrations that follow. In Liverpool, they will remember that, only a couple of years after they left the wilderness, their team became champion of Europe. They will remember the pride and the pleasure. They will remember reaching out to touch their heroes, desperate to be close to them. They will remember the sight of one of their own, out there on the field, dancing for them, and for himself.