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The Curtis Jones conundrum
The 2022/23 campaign will tell us a lot about where Curtis Jones' future lies.
Of all the players in the Liverpool squad, the one with the biggest point to prove in the 2022/23 season is arguably Curtis Jones. It’s four years now since his first pre-season with the senior squad, and around two years since he made the step up from academy football to becoming a regular part of the first team picture under Jürgen Klopp.
In that time, Jones has clearly taken enormous strides forward both in terms of his physical stature and his tactical understanding of the game. There have been several spectacular moments along the way, most notably his FA Cup stunner against Everton at Anfield in 2019/20, along with plenty of excellent all-round performances, such as his man of the match display in the 5-1 victory against Porto away in the Champions League last season, in which he patrolled the midfield like a seasoned veteran.
As the new season draws ever closer, however, it’s difficult to gauge exactly where Jones stands in the midfield pecking order, what his current level is, and what his potential ceiling looks like. There were points last season where it felt as though he was effectively Klopp’s fourth choice midfielder – the go-to option behind Thiago, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho – and he may well have seen significantly more game time had he not picked up that unfortunate eye injury in training during the November international break, which ended up keeping him out of action until the end of the year.
Despite a strong run of performances between mid-January and early March, Jones was left out of the squad for the League Cup final and gradually faded out of the picture in the final couple of months of the campaign, mostly finding himself an unused substitute during the crunch time of April and May. He didn’t feature in either leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Benfica, only came off the bench for 11 minutes in the second leg against Villarreal, and watched on from the sidelines in Paris against Real Madrid. In the FA Cup, his only game time across the quarter-final, semi-final and final was a three-minute substitute appearance against Man City in the semis.
It’s worth noting that Harvey Elliott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain found themselves in a similar predicament towards the back end of the season, as Klopp settled on Thiago, Henderson, Fabinho and Naby Keita as his trusted quartet of midfield options. The deeper Liverpool went in all the cup competitions, and the more they closed in on Man City in the league, the more Klopp prioritised rhythm and consistency rather than rest and rotation – and it very nearly culminated in an unprecedented quadruple.
Every pre-season represents a fresh start, but at this point in time, it’s not obvious what kind of role Jones will play in the weeks and months ahead. When fit, you’d expect at least two of Thiago, Henderson and Fabinho to be on the pitch in the vast majority of games. Keita enjoyed the best (and least injury-affected) season of his Liverpool career last time out, and will be expecting to play a major role again. Elliott, meanwhile, was one of the standout performers during the Asia tour, and could feasibly work his way back into the starting XI if he continues to perform over the next few weeks.
Right now, those five look likely to be at the front of the midfield queue come the start of the new season. Then there’s James Milner, who signed a one-year contract extension last month and is clearly still valued very highly by Klopp, Fabio Carvalho, whose best position isn’t yet clear but who may well put himself in the midfield conversation as well, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who looked sharp during the Asia tour before sustaining a hamstring injury against Crystal Palace in Singapore.
Jones, therefore, finds himself in a tricky situation. On the one hand, Liverpool not buying a new midfielder this summer means the pathway to regular minutes is more open than it might have been, but at the same time, Jones has a fair bit to do in order to improve on the 18 starts he picked up across all competitions last season.
What’s been curious to observe when watching Jones since he broke into the senior squad is the stark contrast in his playing style in comparison with his time in the academy. When playing at youth level, Jones was a prolific, flamboyant midfielder (who often played on the left) with a superb eye for goal and a real creative flair about his game. Since becoming a first team player, though, he’s morphed into much more of a steady, highly-disciplined midfielder who looks after the ball well and takes relatively few risks.
That’s reflected by the fact that last season, he made just 4.17 progressive passes per 90 minutes – less than half of that averaged by Thiago (9.75) and Elliott (8.67), and also less than Milner (6.95), Henderson (6.09) and Keita (5.84). Indeed, over the past year, he only ranks in the 57th percentile of all midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues in this metric.
In part, this can be explained by Jones simply following instructions and reigning in his natural instincts to fit the needs of the system. We know that Klopp’s midfield has had a very specific function up until now, primarily to facilitate the full-backs and the front three – but it does throw up an important question regarding Jones’ future. That is, what kind of midfielder does Jones see himself as, and which part of the pitch can he make the most of his skill set for the benefit of the team?
Last season, we saw a noticeable shift in the midfield set-up, as the right-sided midfielder was significantly more advanced and given license to link up with the attack, almost like a hybrid between a No.8 and a No.10. The left-sided midfielder, by contrast, sat a lot deeper, forming something not all that far off a double pivot next to Fabinho. It’s something we could see a lot more of next season, and Klopp has also recently alluded to the possibility of deploying a 4-2-3-1, which would open up a whole new range of possibilities for different players.
Perhaps the biggest struggle Jones faces isn’t so much related to his raw ability, but more to do with whether he can nail down a consistent role for Liverpool that suits what he’s best at. He was Liverpool’s most progressive ball-carrying midfielder last season, averaging 9.22 progressive carries per 90 (defined as moving at least five yards up the pitch with the ball, or into the opposition penalty box, excluding the defending 40% of the pitch). In fact, he ranks in the 99th percentile of all midfielders in Europe’s big five leagues in this metric over the past year.
Having a midfielder who’s so adept at driving forward with the ball is certainly valuable, but the most noticeable weakness in Jones’ game is his decision-making. Often, he’ll take one or two touches too many and end up being easily dispossessed, or his final ball will lack the necessary precision to reach its target. If he were to play higher up the pitch, that would be much less of an issue, but in midfield, it’s much more likely to lead to a dangerous turnover and counter-attacking opportunity for the opposition.
For Jones to make that next step in his development, releasing the ball quicker and executing the right pass at the right time are aspects of his game with significant scope for improvement. Perhaps Klopp decides the best way to unlock his potential is to relieve him of some of his defensive duties and play him as a more advanced midfielder (either in the usual 4-3-3 or behind the main striker in a 4-2-3-1) with increased emphasis on making runs into the box and taking shots on goal. As he has shown on several occasions previously, when he gets into the right positions, Jones’ finishing technique is impressive – it’s just that we rarely get to see it, as a modest return of eight goals in 74 senior outings attests.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s still only 21, even though he’s been around the first team squad for what feels like ages – and it’s only natural for a midfielder of his age to still be rough around the edges. He’d likely be a regular starter at plenty of Premier League clubs, but the bar at Liverpool is so high and the competition so fierce that it’s a really tough task to secure a place in the team on a consistent basis. It’ll probably only get tougher, too, presuming Liverpool bring in a couple of high calibre new midfielders next summer.
At his best, he’s a fantastic player to watch, and one that looks every inch like he should be part of Liverpool’s long-term plans. There will come a stage, though, where he needs to demonstrate that he can be trusted to deliver game after game over a prolonged period of time at the required level. If he is to go from being a useful squad player to a dependable starter, it’s absolutely crucial that he grasps the opportunities that come his way in 2022/23.
By this time next year, we’ll almost certainly have a much clearer picture about Jones’ Liverpool future. Only he can decide what that looks like.
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