Curtis Jones’ development has come leaps and bounds over the past 12 months with pathways into the first team favoured due to the expiry of Lallana’s contract as well as injuries to the likes of Thiago Alcantara, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Milner, and Naby Keita.
When chances like this open, it is without a shadow of a doubt that they must be taken with both hands, which is what Jones has done.
With this 2020-21 season having a later start and a projected ‘normal’ finish in May 2021, games have been clustered far closer together with clubs, in particular Klopp, aiming to rotate his options to the fullest he can do to keep players fresh and at the same time maintaining a high level of performance per game.
Along the way, injuries have been common. The aforementioned injuries to Thiago, Keita, Milner, and Oxlade-Chamberlain with Henderson missing a few games too have allowed the young Englishmen a chance that he, for sure, has been waiting for and has taken with ease.
Curtis Jones is the next big thing on the production line from Liverpool’s academy set-up and came up from the academy as the U23’s captain 2 seasons ago, leading Liverpool’s U23’s to a 5th place finish in the 19/20 season. This season was, however, prematurely stopped by COVID-19 and left Liverpool 12 points shy of leaders Chelsea, with a game in hand.
His performances have caught the eyes of Klopp, where he attained 9 goals & 4 assists, 1 goal shy of leading scorers in the division, Folarin Balogun (Arsenal) and Jahmal Hector-Ingram (Derby) and picked up the PL2 player of the season award. In this same season, Jones accumulated 6 appearances, picking up a Premier League winner’s medal.
Fast forward to this season where the climate of games has been drastically different. Comprising of little to no pre-season for clubs competing in the UEFA Europa League and the UEFA Champions League, a condensed season as a whole where international fixtures have been controversially placed in breaks where it would seem that some rest to teams would be most beneficial.
Alas, this tight schedule has resulted in a massive spike in injuries, not just for Liverpool, but throughout the league with a reported up to 42% increase in muscular injuries upon reporting (23 October) [Source: The Athletic]
With injuries come the reliance on squad depth, and with Liverpool’s most heavily stacked department being their midfield as well as arguably their most ‘hard-working’ unit of their team, personnel have been rotated by Klopp where possible giving Jones an opportunity which he has taken, accumulating nine 90’ stints, with an appearance in seven other games too.
An analysis of his game this season
Jones’ performance in a big game against Tottenham Hotspur was a very mature and complete performance. His positional sense to drop in to cover Andrew Robertson to allow the flying Scotsman to express himself higher up the pitch is highlighted below:
This movement may seem marginal, but it allowed Mane to come deeper with Moussa Sissoko wary of Robertson’s advancements down the flank and also allowed the Liverpool CBs an out-ball to outnumber Spurs’ two-man attack (Heung-Min Son & Harry Kane), allowing Liverpool to build out of their defence.
Going to other way, his ability in attacking positions has improved massively. His ability to pick up the ball in tight positions in the left halfspace, like below, causes Spurs problems due to his presence between the lines which is a difficult zone for defenders or midfielders of the opposition to pick up players:
His movement into this space also pulls Giovani Lo Celso and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg towards him, allowing Georginio Wijnaldum space in central positions if the ball were to be received by the Dutchman.
His movement is also shown below. Jones initially is on his toes positioned between the deep Spurs forward pair and the midfield.
He then darts off his man (Lo Celso) into an open space with Serge Aurier being pulled wide by Sadio Mane:
This movement allows Jordan Henderson to pick him out with a perfect pass, where he is attended to by three Spurs players: Toby Alderweireld, Aurier and Lo Celso. His close touch and dribbling allow him to retain the ball in this tight area and recycle play:
His dribbling was further on show against Fulham, where the young Englishmen drove the ball from deep in his own half, skipped past a challenge from Fulham’s Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, shuffled the ball inside and almost topped off a sublime dribble with what would have been a deserved finish to conclude the move:
Another attribute to his game is his ability to drop deep, pulling off his marker (Aurier in this instance) who is unsure of whether to go with him or drop back to cover the space in behind and ends up doing neither. The move almost results in a Liverpool goal with Mohamed Salah’s shot straight at Hugo Lloris. The footage of which can be seen below:
Jones’ ability to link up play is a part of his game that was seen in the build-up to Salah’s opener against Spurs. Here, he squared up Lo Celso…..
…..played a pass to Roberto Firmino, and ran off his man to receive the ball back to carry the ball forwards:
Which led to Liverpool’s opener via a deflection by Salah.
A perhaps unseen part of a Liverpool midfielder’s game is their ability to get into the opposition’s box to help attacks with Liverpool’s midfielders stereotyped as ‘workhorses’ and this was shown here by Jones:
Where his positioning in the box to add presence and numbers to Liverpool’s attack as well as giving Spurs’ defenders something else to think about.
This movement in the penalty area was also seen in the Champions League home tie v Ajax:
With Jones stationed at the far post, on the blind side of Ajax’s Davy Klaasen. The result was a goal from a tight angle, albeit due to an error by Ajax’s goalkeeper, Andre Onana.
The final attribute to point out is his vision in picking out runs with perfectly placed passes. One instance was the home win v West Ham United.
West Ham took an early lead in the game with a Pablo Fornals goal and sat back for periods before half-time to protect this slender lead. Setting up in a 541 low block, they aimed to shun off space in behind and aimed to keep the gaps between the defence and midfield minimal.
But Jones upon receiving the ball deep was able to get his head up and pick out Salah’s movement off Arthur Masuaku which resulted in a penalty that the Egyptian converted emphatically.
A still of West Ham’s 541 shape and Jones picking up the ball can be seen below:
With all these attributes showing at such a young age, there will be increasing calls to start Jones regularly but with Liverpool’s depth in the department; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Thiago, Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Milner and with Thiago and Milner recently returning to full first-team training, the young Englishman’s starting minutes may be limited.
In line with this thought, there could be the assessment that Jones’ performances may have jumped ahead of the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita, both of whom undoubtedly have quality but fail to remain fit for sustained periods of time.
A comparison could be made to Keita’s performances last season whereby the Guinean completed almost identical Premier League 90s (Minutes played divided by 90) to Jones this season, 9.1 for Keita and 9 for Jones. The stats of which can be seen below:
From this data, you could draw a few conclusions, although the sample size is small. In short, Keita’s metrics show his superiority in the defensive side to the game with Jones edging Keita marginally in some passing metrics. On the whole, both are almost identical and breed fresh competition for spaces in the Liverpool midfield.
To conclude, only time will tell the role Jones has in this Liverpool side but one this is for certain, Liverpool have their hands on a superstar.