The 2021/22 season was one filled with varying emotions for Curtis Jones.
The Toxteth-born midfielder, who undoubtedly possesses an abundance of talent, has found showcasing his ability a problem at times during his Reds career to date, for a number of reasons.
In early August, after suffering a concussion against Osasuna in the final pre-season game before the Premier League curtain-raiser, Jones was already bidding to make up for lost time before a ball had been kicked of the new season.
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As captain Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcantara were unavailable because of their extended Euro 2020 commitments, the 21-year-old was forced to watch from afar as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Milner and Naby Keita were all given the nod for the 3-0 victory against Norwich on the opening weekend of the season.
As it transpired, Jones managed to make up for that lost ground pretty efficiently as he forced his way into Jurgen Klopp’s reckoning for a four-game spell towards the back end of September. Ironically, it was a start away at Carrow Road in the League Cup, in an unfamiliar deep-lying midfield role, that acted as a launch pad for his second full senior campaign.
His confident, assured and silky on-the-ball presence helped Liverpool cruise into the fourth round of the competition, but also highlighted just how accommodating the England youth international can be with such a spectacular skill-set at his disposal. Making him without a doubt one of the finest recent graduates of the Reds’ academy ranks.
After seriously impressing against Porto in the Champions League, where he picked up two assists, and subsequently handed a start against Manchester City at Anfield in one of the most decisive fixtures of the season, he played a significant role in the victory over Manchester United and retained his place for the visit of Brighton the following week.
Though, after suffering from an innocuous eye injury during the November international break, Jones’ season begins to derail as he missed eight league games as a result of the impairment.
And as he aimed to regain rhythm during the early stages of 2022, his manager, Klopp, revealed a hard-hitting dialogue the pair had recently held in a bid to allow Jones to advance and make the eagerly expected ‘next steps’ of his career .
“I had a long talk last week with Curtis,” said the Reds’ boss. “I love the boy and love the potential he has, but he has to now really make the next steps and fulfill the potential he has on the pitch very often.
“You have these types of conversations when you are not 100% happy with the moment.
“He is young, very young. But how I see it, his potential is incredible. We both together have to find a way to show that much more often.”
Though in the 18 league games which followed Klopp’s shared frustration with the midfielder, he only managed 533 minutes of action in Liverpool’s final 18 Premier League games, a mere 32% of what was on offer.
So where does the Reds’ number 17 go from here? With the competition for places in the squad – let alone the starting XI – constantly increasing following the addition of Fabio Carvalho, but also with the ECHO’s understanding that an additional midfielder could arrive next summer. Time on the pitch could be brief for Jones in the near future.
Can he benefit from a change of formation?
Having been molded by Liverpool legend – and his former youth coach- Steven Gerrard, Jones has received all the guidance a young scouser could only dream of during his time progressing through the club’s academy and into the first team.
Of course, it was Gerrard who contributed to the midfielder’s rise to heighten his game as the youngster became the U18s ‘, and subsequently U23s’, match-winner on countless occasions under the former Liverpool captain’s tutelage.
And even after Gerrard had parted with his role at Kirkby for pastures new, the signs of his teachings were still recognizable in Jones as he advanced into Neil Critchley’s U23s side. Most notably when he delivered an eye-catching hat-trick against Napoli in the UEFA Youth League in November 2019.
But even in the thick of his attacking supremacy, it was Jones’ willingness to engage with the opposite, far less glamorous, side of the game which saw him awarded an invaluable education as he started training regularly with Klopp’s senior side at Melwood.
His final half-season in youth football, the start of the 2019/20 campaign, saw the 21-year-old most frequently deployed off the left-hand side of an advanced midfield line, where he racked up an astounding 14 goals and six assists in 20 games. A position he could be reinstated this summer in a bid to breathe fresh life into his Anfield career.
As a result of Klopp’s prominent love for a 4-2-3-1 formation, one which he helped him topple Bayern Munich to win back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012, there has been plenty of murmurs that the Liverpool boss could revert back to the idea this summer, especially with the anticipated departure of Sadio Mane.
Luis Diaz is the clear first choice for Liverpool on the left-hand side these days but Jones could stake a claim to evolve into his deputy, which would be a far more viable way to guarantee game time rather than battling in and amongst the masses for minutes in midfield. Nonetheless, it’s a position that would suit Jones’ attributes far better. Last season only Diaz (3.02) averaged more successful dribbles per 90 than the 21-year-old, while only five of his teammates averaged more progressive dribbles than his 8.63 per 90.
It was during his stellar breakout campaign in 2019/20 that Jones extraordinarily gave supporters a glimpse of what could be as he exploded onto the scene with a majestic game-winning striker against Everton in the FA Cup, only a month after he had made his Premier League debut.
It was during the said campaign, though, that the vast majority of his minutes came from the left-hand side across the academy and first-team scene.
In the years and seasons since, there have been indications that perhaps he may kick on and become the more disciplined center-midfielder his manager desires, but the longer time passes the more apparent it becomes that Jones’ long-term calling is further up- field, in a more free role.
Yes, there have been numerous occasions where Jones has been given an opportunity as one of the wide forwards in Liverpool’s current 4-3-3 system, but given how narrow those positions, which are typically occupied by Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, are, it’s as similar as being a central-striker.
But Jones, who is evidently a more progressive user and passer of the ball, appears to have all the qualities to deploy himself in those dangerous half-spaces between the lines, which are frequently compacted when playing against ‘lesser’ opposition – situations he would thrive in.
This could be something of a final opportunity for the 21-year-old to really stake his claim as a leading member of Klopp’s squad, but with the confidence and capability he retains, combined with a potential tweak from his manager, it has all the hallmarks to be his most influential campaign at Anfield to date.