Only 20 years of age and only 51 appearances into his Liverpool career, Curtis Jones’ time in the team under Jurgen Klopp has already been an eventful one.
The attacking midfielder netted the Reds’ third in a 3-3 draw with Brentford on Saturday evening, a deflected scorcher which flew into the top corner to put his team ahead, just minutes after another – more presentable – chance from closer range had been walloped high into the stands behind the goal. Those couple of moments are representative of the challenge facing Curtis Jones now: consistency is key, and regular end product must be found without sacrificing anything else in his game.
Perhaps, to an extent, it’s true of many youngsters: the breakthrough is rarely smooth and orderly, rather chaotic and opportunistic for some players, spectacular and undeniable for others. Even so, Jones has had a start to senior life which is tricky to judge accurately, without using an extremely wide-zoom lens.
The Toxteth-born schemer has already captained the team, dispatched the winner in a penalty shoot-out at Anfield, netted the winner in a Merseyside derby and scored in the Champions League. That’s more notable highlights than many get in an entire career.
He also played a huge role for Liverpool in the first half of last season and featured in 17 of 19 Premier League games between late November and the start of March – but then barely featured at all for the rest of the campaign, just 89 minutes in the final 14 fixtures in all competitions. At the start of this season, too, he faced a new uphill battle: concussion suffered in pre-season saw him miss the opener against Norwich, while a newer, younger face shone in midfield – Harvey Elliott.
The conclusion from some was that Jones was somewhat shunted down the manager’s order of preference, with Naby Keita also being handed starts and Thiago working his way back to fitness after Euro 2020. The weekend start was Jones’ first of the 21/22 league season – he has had to watch on from the sidelines and await another chance. Elliott’s brilliant impact before his injury, his ‘newness’ and the exciting way he linked up with Mohamed Salah in particular all further added to the hints that Jones had not missed his chance, precisely, but certainly taken a sideways step out of the most immediate limelight across the previous six months.
A goal and a stirring showing at the Brentford Community Stadium, then, was a fine way to serve a reminder to onlookers – particularly some supporters who are quick to write off anybody not in the 11 from game to game – of his undoubted and enormous talent, and how he might once again win a regular place in the team.
Which brings us back to consistency.
After the match, Klopp left Jones and everyone else in little doubt that this is where the improvements can, and must, still come.
“Curtis is a top player. Still a talent, but a really good package,” Klopp said. “He showed that tonight, I thought he played a really good game. He won, in the first half, the best balls for us, he was really good in these situations.
“On top of that he was involved in all football situations. He dropped in the right spaces, was brave in between the lines, so many good things.
“But that’s football, and he’s young and his consistency is maybe sometimes a little bit of the issue, but in this moment he’s in a really good moment. I think he’s now old enough to keep that moment going.”
Keeping his form going will of course rely in part on Klopp picking him, and two big games lie ahead before the international break: Porto in the Champions League, Manchester City in the Premier League. Selection for either one will be a big vote of confidence; starting both would be confirmation that he remains trusted to fulfil every aspect of the midfield role.
And, on the left side of Liverpool’s three, that’s a particularly big one.
It’s linking balls in the middle, aiding an aggressive line and finding an end product in and around the area, yes, but it’s also filling in for Andy Robertson in the left channel when the full-back flies up the flank. It’s also ensuring when Sadio Mane’s dribbles end in a challenge, that he’s in the right position to launch an immediate counter-press, or block the passing lane, or drop deeper alongside Fabinho as required. And equally as importantly, it’s not just knowing that all three of those must be done, but knowing which is the right option to pick in each moment of the game, in tandem with his team-mates.
Jones’ issues with consistency are not so much in picking a pass or knowing when to release play, but impacting on and off the ball in the relentless, domineering way that Mane, Fabinho and the like do over, and over, and over again. Doing so is why Gini Wijnaldum had the role locked down, and doing so is how Jones can make it his in future.
Consistency is key, and that’s the biggest challenge any youngster coming through in an elite side must face.
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