By the time Liverpool play their next match, Curtis Jones will have turned 21 years old. A coming-of-age marker doesn’t really seem to exist in English football anymore; gone are U21 leagues, several top-flight players have needed to wait until 22 or 23 for their chance, more coaches subscribe to the “good enough, old enough” mantra. But still, no longer being a literal under-21 effectively marks the transition from youngster to senior player, be it as a superstar-in-waiting or squad-filler option.
For a player who recently had his manager claim to be his “biggest fan”, it’s perhaps an even bigger milestone than usual: Jones has had some incredible highs with the Reds, but also some fairly significant spells out of the side.
If this is the time for him to no longer be seen as a young player and merely be a first-team regular, he could hardly have better backing. He could also have hardly timed his latest rise to form and fitness better.
Sunday’s 3-1 win over Crystal Palace saw a fairly erratic overall performance from Liverpool, who were irresistible for 30 minutes and atrocious for 30 minutes, before establishing enough of a handle on matters again to see out the win. Yes, the late penalty ended the contest, but the Reds had already seized control and composure by then; Palace had only taken two shots in the previous half-hour of play, just one on target. Anything could still have had happened, sure, and it did, a goal at the other end.
Jones played the full 90 minutes of that Selhurst Park encounter, a fourth full game in Liverpool’s last five. That run has come at a time when Jurgen Klopp has been without two of his go-to options in midfield: Thiago Alcantara, injured, and Naby Keita, at the Africa Cup of Nations. Both have been regularly called upon by the manager as key parts of his tactical plan when available, yet neither of them is available anywhere near frequently enough to be reasonably called regulars.
It speaks volumes that despite Jones missing the start of the season with concussion, later being absent with Covid and sitting out no fewer than 13 games with a freak eye injury sustained during training, he has played more than 200 minutes more this season than both his far more senior teammates.
Against Brentford, Arsenal and certainly in the first half against Palace, Jones was excellent. His measured approach on the ball, a clearly diligent focus on his defensive work high upfield, and positional play out of possession are all key facets of his game that make him an option for Klopp in Liverpool’s left-sided No 8 role, the slightly more restricted of the two in the team in terms of forward runs, wide overlaps and breaking into the box.
If all that sounds at least weighted toward a defensive-minded player, bear in mind both that Liverpool’s defending starts with the most attack-minded players, and also that Jones still has a little work to do in terms of nailing down an absolute role in the team: he’s an attacking midfielder by youth role, a left-sided forward by his breakthrough minutes, and yet a scheming, deep-lying option most of the time in the current set-up.
Is that his best role for the long term? It appears Klopp thinks so, which again is a pointer to just how much faith he has in the academy graduate that he would entrust him with one of the most tactically important roles in the side, if not the most eye-catching at every moment. The Gini Wijnaldum role, as it were.
Consistency is everything in that area of the park for Liverpool, both on and off the ball. He must be able to contribute toward the high-risk approach in attack, but also be able to mitigate that risk defensively.
After 62 first-team appearances for the Anfield club, Jones is well aware of the requirements and the expectations of him. He also probably knows well enough by now that just because he’s praised for an outing, or does well in several games in succession, there’s every chance that against Cardiff or Leicester after the international break he may be back on the bench. That’s the nature of having a returning winner-of-everything like Thiago for a teammate, who plays in the same role.
Jones still has plenty to work on. Most [just about] 21 year olds do.
But in one of the most testing times of the season for Liverpool – not just without those midfielders but their two top forwards too, both at the Afcon with Keita – they have navigated the FA Cup third round, reached the League Cup final and won both Premier League fixtures to claw back a little ground on Man City. And Jones has been part of the solution.
It’s only a week or two since Klopp acknowledged he had spoken at length with Jones about making the “next steps” to fulfilling the “incredible” potential he has.
On recent evidence that process is well in hand, and if there’s to be silverware won at Anfield this season, there is every reason to suspect the local-born No 17 will play a very notable part in securing it.
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