Diogo Jota: What's making Liverpool’s constant threat so effective this season?

After Sadio Mané’s departure in 2022 and Roberto Firmino bidding farewell to Anfield this year Diogo Jota, suddenly, is now Liverpool’s second longest-serving attacker after Mohamed Salah, of course.

The Portuguese star arrived from Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer of 2021 for a fee of £41m. The move was something of a shock at the time, with no prior links to the former Atlético Madrid man before Paul Joyce’s tweet.

His first season at the club was better than anyone could have expected, at least definitely better than this Wolves fan predicted at the time

Jota scored 13 goals in 1,760 minutes of football in all competitions – including a hat-trick in a Champions League game away to Atalanta.

It took him two months to win the Player of the Month award at the club, as he proved to be the perfect addition to a Liverpool attack that had next to no depth bar Divock Origi on a Champions League or Merseyside Derby day.

In fact, while Liverpool’s struggles that season are mainly down to the injury crisis that happened at centre back, Jota’s injury and subsequent three-month absence at the start of December had a huge influence on how Jürgen Klopp was able to rotate the attack and change things in-game.

He came back strong, and his 21 goals in all competitions in 2021/22 as Liverpool came oh-so-close to a historic quadruple is his highest total in a season to date. He started 39 out of his 55 appearances that year, as he went from rotation option to often preferred to Roberto Firmino in the centre forward role.

Since then, it has been slightly choppier waters for Jota’s Liverpool career. Luis Díaz joined half-way through the 2021/22 season, followed by the big money move for Darwin Núñez that summer and the arrival of Cody Gakpo from PSV six months after that. All of these signings, alongside injuries to Jota – including one that kept him out of the World Cup in Qatar – threatened his place in the team.

READ MORE: Diogo Jota is the perfect squad player battling for a starring role 

Yet this season is, in terms of goalscoring, this is the 26-year-old’s best season to date. His 0.77 goals per 90 is better than his first (0.66), second (0.53) and third (0.45) seasons at the club – and better than that at any season Liverpool’s number 20 had while at Paços de Ferreira, Porto, or Wolves. While he hasn’t registered an assist so far this season his underlying numbers are some of the best of his career to date, with 0.22 expected assists per 90 and 1.47 key passes per 90 only matched or bettered by his 2022/23 campaign (of which he already has nearly half the minutes 12 games into this campaign).

As we come into November, Jota has featured in 12 of Liverpool’s 14 games this season. He’s started nine of those 12. The added competition in his positions has not appeared to discourage him, instead it has done the opposite.

So, what is making him so effective?

First, let’s look at where Jota has played so far this season. He is, of course, positionally versatile – able to play off the left wing and through the middle (as well as covering the right side if needed) with ease. He has shared minutes this year between the two, with seven appearances on the left and five through the middle. Below is his heatmap for the Premier League, via SofaScore:

Jota, as he tends to, has covered a lot of different areas over the pitch. He likes to drop deep to pick the ball up before driving at defenders. In a way, starting centrally or on the left doesn’t really change things for him. The nuances of the left-wing role at Liverpool mean that whoever is playing there is often coming into central areas, vacating the wide space for a Curtis Jones or Ryan Gravenberch to come into.

In a sense, coming off the left suits Jota slightly better than starting centrally. As the left-winger you are naturally going to be marked by the opposition right-back (or, if against a back three, the outside right centre-back). For the most part in the modern game, those players are more attacking focused, and as Jota moves inside, they do not tend to follow, opening more space for him to make a penetrating run into.

Let’s look at his opener on Sunday, for example…

Liverpool already have the numerical advantage thanks to Alexis Mac Allister’s turnover in midfield, setting off a transitional attack for the Reds. Liverpool focus their attack down the right-hand side, with Salah feeding the run of Núñez – whose gravitational pull draws both remaining defenders towards him. While it’s undoubtedly poor defending from Forest, you can see the benefits that Jota enjoys when he’s on that side.

He lingers on the blindside of his nearest marker and holds and holds his run until, avoiding any suspicion that he’s there, Turner parries the Uruguayan’s shot out and Jota has all the space in the world to tap it in.

It might seem quite cliché, but this isn’t a coincidence with Jota. It’s a situation he finds himself in time and time again, popping up with one or two touch finishes in the box in space that sends opposition managers in a fit of red-faced rage.

Above is the Portuguese international’s shot map from the Premier League season so far (via Understat.com). As you may have guessed, the goals are in green. All three of his league goals – against Bournemouth, West Ham, and Forest – are extremely close to the goal. It’s the xG-ification of football that teams are taking fewer long shots and trying to get those shots closer to the goal (because, of course, they tend to be easier to get into the goal).

Now, I’m not claiming Jota is the perfect attacker – he has his flaws and I have my frustrations with him. What he is though, is one of the best attackers at getting these high-quality chances on a regular basis, and what that gives is Klopp a consistent threat either starting or off the bench. He may be frustrating at times, his ball carrying isn’t the cleanest or most effective (although his goal against Toulouse wasn’t too bad!), but he is a guaranteed goal scorer.

In his nine seasons of professional football, he only has two – 2016/17 at Porto and 2021/22 (both have reduced gametime, for context) – seasons where he didn’t manage to score 10 goals in all competitions. He is, as the numbers go, not the greatest finisher.

Across his career he has had as many seasons underperforming his expected goals as he has over-performing ones – across his career he has underperformed his expected goals by exactly one, he’s average. Yet that doesn’t matter, most elite attackers aren’t elite level finishers, it’s how consistently they get those chances that matters, because higher volume = more chance to get one in.

KARLSRUHE, GERMANY - Wednesday, July 19, 2023: Liverpool's Diogo Jota during a pre-season friendly match between Karlsruher SC and Liverpool FC at the Wildparkstadion. Liverpool won 4-2. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

No matter the game, no matter the situation, Jota will consistently get you chances. He’s also elite at getting those 'second chance' opportunities (scoring from a goalkeeper save or the break of the ball in the box). Him staying healthy changes everything for Klopp this season, you’re essentially adding a minimum of ten goals (and he’s already on six) to your total, and he gives you the option to change the game from the bench, or rest those deemed to be the ‘starters’ (even if that’s not so clear at Liverpool).

This season has the potential to be Jota’s best at the club, surpassing his 21 goals back in 2021/22.

The Europa League presents him with a starring role, and Anfield Watch's own Andy Headspeath has tipped him to be the competition's top scorer. Whether he is or not, a fit and firing Jota increases Liverpool’s chances of success this year greatly.

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