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What next for Diogo Jota?
His form tailed off significantly at the back end of last season, but there's so much more to come.
It’s only just over a month since the end of the 2021/22 campaign, but a raft of significant changes has already taken place at Liverpool this summer. We’ve seen the departure of two club legends, including one of the all-time greats, along with the top goal scorer in both of last season’s domestic cup triumphs.
The arrival of Darwin Nunez brings all kinds of tantalizing possibilities, meanwhile, and if all goes to plan, his presence will go a long way to replacing the goals Liverpool have lost from the departures of Sadio Mane, Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino to Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Monaco respectively. Fabio Carvalho is another hugely promising addition with bags of potential for the future (and hopefully the ability to make an immediate impact, too), while Calvin Ramsay looks a shrewd addition to strengthen one of the few remaining weaknesses in the squad.
But amid the discussions around Liverpool’s transfer business so far, debates about whether they’ll bring in a new midfielder or not, and all the ongoing speculation around Mohamed Salah’s contract situation, it feels as though one player has been conspicuously overlooked in terms of his importance next season and beyond: Diogo Jota.
Granted, social media doesn’t necessarily provide an accurate gauge of an overarching supporter consensus, but it’s notable how Jota is absent from an awful lot, quite possibly even the majority of posts about Liverpool’s ‘strongest XI’ for next season, with Salah, Nunez and Luis Diaz seemingly the first choice front three in the eyes of many.
Jürgen Klopp may well end up leaning that way, too, of course, but while the excitement around Nunez and Diaz is justified, it’s shouldn’t be forgotten just how integral a player Jota was for Liverpool last season – certainly until around mid-February, but arguably all the way through to his equalising goal against Man City at the Etihad in April.
At that point, he’d scored 21 goals in 42 appearances in all competitions, at a rate of exactly one in two. Of those 21 goals, all of them came from open play, and 14 were either breakthrough goals, equalisers or match-winners. He was one of Liverpool’s most decisive players on a consistent basis, and having started 19 of the first 24 games in the league, he was clearly Klopp’s go-to centre forward (albeit, Roberto Firmino missed a lot of games through injury).
It’s the fact that he didn’t score in any of his last 13 outings that colours perceptions of his season as a whole, and the general quality of his performances dipped noticeably towards the back end of the campaign, having effectively carried Liverpool’s attack on his shoulders for over a month while Salah and Mane were away at AFCON.
Several factors could explain Jota’s drop-off, not least the ankle injury he picked up in the Champions League last-16 first leg against Inter Milan at the San Siro, after which he was never quite able to hit the levels he was at earlier in the season, despite still making several vital contributions, including the breakthrough goal against Arsenal at the Emirates in the league, the late winner in the FA Cup quarter-final against Nottingham Forest, and of course the goal against Man City at the Etihad.
The timing of that injury was massively unfortunate for Jota, as it came just before the League Cup final against Chelsea. Had he been fully fit, he’d almost certainly have been in line to start, but instead, he was only ready enough to make the bench, and Mane ended up taking his place through the middle. That positional switch gave Mane a whole new lease of life, and with Diaz instantly excelling over on the left, Klopp stumbled across a brand new front three by circumstance more than by design.
With every passing game, Mane looked increasingly potent and rejuvenated as a number nine, and dropping Diaz felt almost impossible given his electric start to life at Liverpool. When Jota did get opportunities, he wasn’t quite able to match Mane’s ruthlessness through the middle or provide the kind of explosiveness Diaz had brought to the team out wide. Much like Firmino, he suddenly found himself down the pecking order without an obvious route to re-establishing his place as a regular starter.
How that pecking order will shape up next season is difficult to say right now, but it’s worth taking a step back and appreciating just how much Jota has to offer, even if he’s not the flavour of the month at this point. Over the course of last season, he averaged the highest non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes (0.61) out of any player in the Premier League, which highlights how exceptional he is at getting himself into prime goal scoring positions in the opposition penalty area.
For context, Salah averaged the second-highest NPxG per 90 (0.55), followed by Mane and Timo Werner (both 0.53), Cristiano Ronaldo (0.52), Raheem Sterling (0.51) and Son Heung-Min (0.49). Over the past year, Jota ranks in the 97th percentile of all centre forwards in Europe’s top five leagues in this category, based on data from domestic league and European matches.
The quality of his finishing tends to swing between the extremes, and he ended up slightly underperforming his overall xG throughout the campaign (15 league goals from 16.1 xG), but when he’s on the pitch, his movement is so effective that he racks up such a high volume of chances. If he’s able to improve the consistency of his finishing, that’s what will take him from a circa 20-goal-a-season forward into one capable of getting close to, or possibly breaking 30.
Jota’s average of 10.3 final third pressures per 90, meanwhile, was the highest in the Liverpool squad out of any player who made at least 10 starts in all competitions, underlining the amount of work he puts in off the ball to make life difficult for opposition defenders trying to play out from the back. He ranks in the 97th percentile of forwards in Europe’s top five leagues for pressures per 90 and tackles and interceptions per 90, and also the 95th percentile for ball recoveries per 90. Although his execution and decision-making can be frustrating, what can never be questioned is his work ethic and tenacity, even when he’s having an off-day.
Certainly, there’s plenty of scope to refine some aspects of his game, especially in possession. At times, he doesn’t look after the ball particularly well, and when playing centrally, he doesn’t provide that seamless link between midfield and attack that Firmino did so brilliantly for such a long time. Aesthetically, Jota can be a somewhat scrappy player to watch, and his one-touch passing isn’t always as crisp and precise as you’d want. Hence why, when he doesn’t score, people often question what exactly he’s contributing. Some of these things can be improved, no doubt, but all the positives he brings far outweigh the various flaws in his game.
His piercing pass to set up Salah’s second goal in the 4-0 drubbing of Manchester United at home and his neat close control before assisting Minamino’s equaliser against Southampton at St Mary’s were just a couple of examples of what he can do in a creative sense, besides putting the ball in the back of the net.
Likewise, his flicked header to Mane in the build-up to Salah’s goal against Arsenal at Anfield was another fine piece of skill and awareness which went under the radar at the time, as was his deft through ball for Naby Keita’s winning strike against Newcastle away. The tools are there for him to become a more rounded player – it’s a case of incorporating these elements into his game on a more regular basis.
Although Nunez will be Liverpool’s main centre forward, and Diaz will surely start the bulk of games on the left, they won’t both be able to start all the time. It’ll take Nunez some time to adapt to the specifics of the system, too, and learn how Klopp wants him to play – which won’t necessarily be what he was used to at Benfica. Rotation will be necessary, injuries might happen, and with five substitutes available, there will be even more flexibility for Klopp to switch things up in-game. Against certain types of opponent, he may also play more of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-4-type system, rather than the usual 4-3-3.
So, while he hasn’t been at his razor-sharp best for a while, there’s every reason to believe that Jota will have a major role to play next season and serve a reminder, if it is needed, of how important he is to this team. Few players ever follow a perfectly linear trajectory in their careers, as there will usually be peaks and troughs along the way, as all of Salah, Mane and Firmino have shown this throughout their time at the club.
At 25 years of age, the likelihood is that Jota’s peak years are still to come – and that, for Liverpool, is an immensely exciting prospect.
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