Liverpool emerged victorious on Sunday, with a 4-3 win over Fulham at Anfield, but the chaotic and frantic nature of the game meant it was clear to see that the Reds need to control games better.
At times this season, Klopp’s side have achieved this control, though these games have largely featured Curtis Jones in midfield.
Admittedly, Jones’ performance against Manchester City was not his best showing, and some of his old habits crept back into his game, but the reaction to his display from sections of the fanbase has been harsh, especially considering it was his first game back from injury, and it was against arguably the best team in world football.
The Scouser’s performances over the past seven months have largely been excellent, and this season, games against Aston Villa and West Ham have highlighted the importance of his stabilising presence.
Criticism of Jones this term has centred on his relative lack of attacking output, but such criticism is eerily reminiscent of remarks Georginio Wijnaldum received during his time at the club. They might be different players in different positions, but both seem to cause division amongst fans.
With that in mind, what exactly makes Jones’ profile valuable to the Liverpool squad?
Curtis Jones’ shaky appearance against Manchester City saw him replaced by Ryan Gravenberch, whose cameo against the treble winners was impressive. In fact, it has led to calls by some for the Dutchman to retain his place in Liverpool’s long term midfield setup, alongside Dominik Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister.
Gravenberch’s attacking instincts were clear to see last weekend, especially when he burst past Rodri for Trent’s equaliser, but this has led to unfair stylistic comparisons to Jones. Looking at the raw data up to matchweek 13, it seems that the former Bayern Munich midfielder is simply more involved in Liverpool’s attacks, having registered 169 touches in the final third compared to Jones’ 115.
Gravenberch has also taken 26 touches in the opposition penalty area in comparison to Jones’ 16 (Fbref).
However, Jones’ importance does not lie in direct offensive output, but rather in helping Liverpool keep possession of the ball, both in the middle and final thirds. According to Fbref, of Liverpool players in the Premier League who have played at least two full matches, Jones has the highest pass completion percentage of any player (93.5%).
Additionally, under the same parameters, only Alisson has a higher short pass completion percentage (99.2%) than Jones (96.8%).
These statistics could be interpreted as Jones being too safe and limited in-possession, but safety is exactly what Klopp demands of his left sided midfielder. This is due to the expansive nature of Liverpool’s right-hand side, with Trent, Szoboszlai, and Salah naturally losing the ball when attempting penetrative passes or shooting at goal. If the left-hand side was as attacking, games would become far too frantic for Liverpool to exert any kind of control over their opponents, and the backline would become even more exposed to transition attacks.
For example, in the Fulham game, Gravenberch completed just 76% of his passes (Sofascore), and in one instance lost the ball with a poor pass, which led to Fulham’s third goal.
When Jones opts to retain possession, he prevents games from becoming too chaotic, and in turn, helps to balance the offensive nature of the Reds’ right hand side with a calmer, and more measured approach.
Jones also performs a secondary but equally important role, which is that of a facilitator.
Facilitators like Jones allow others to excel due to their intelligence and sacrifice, often rotating with teammates and moving into many different positions. In relation to Jones specifically, this season he has often helped both Robertson and Tsimikas, as well as forwards Jota, and Díaz.
Take, for instance, Jones’ role in Liverpool’s win over West Ham, where he could be seen dropping into left back zones and alleviating Robertson of some buildup responsibilities, an area where the Scotland captain has struggled at times.
Elsewhere, Jones has moved towards the left flank, allowing Díaz and Jota to move into more central areas. For Jota, this has helped him get closer to goal, with the Portuguese registering the second best goals per 90 figure (0.57) of any Liverpool player in the Premier League (Fbref). For Díaz, Jones has allowed the Columbian to drift across the pitch, and this positional freedom has disrupted opposition defences.
On the whole, by facilitating for others, Jones has enabled Liverpool to progress up the pitch more easily, while also empowering the Reds’ attack to function more fluidly.
Wijnaldum and Jones: Different Roles, Same Criticisms
Jones’ role in Klopp’s revamped Liverpool side has enabled others to perform to their best, but despite this, the Scouser’s place in the team is hotly debated.
This is somewhat of a familiar debate, as the role of Wijnaldum was also a frequent topic of discussion in the past, with some fans believing that the Dutchman’s offensive output was too limited.
However, Wijnaldum’s ability as a facilitator and controller, much like Jones, was an under-appreciated aspect of his game. In fact, Klopp hailed Wijnaldum upon his exit, highlighting how Liverpool’s success was built on “his legs, lungs, brain and his huge, beautiful heart”.
While Jones and Wijnaldum are different players (Jones defends in higher areas of the pitch, for example), both have a similar impact in terms of defending against transitions. For instance, Wijnaldum’s athleticism and intelligence provided a safety net for Liverpool whenever their press was breached, and Jones’s energy and defensive nous allows him to effectively counter-press, and prevent teams from escaping pressure.
Curtis Jones has been a staple in Liverpool’s side ever since Klopp altered his midfield system against Arsenal at Anfield last season.
The 22-year-old’s role might not be the most productive in terms of attacking contributions, but his importance in terms of providing defensive stability should not be underestimated.
With this in mind, Jones’ controlling presence could prove vital over the festive period, particularly given the intense schedule, and key clashes against the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal.