So many midfielders under Jurgen Klopp are misunderstood.
In fact, it wouldn’t be a Liverpool midfield if there wasn’t at least one player who divided opinion. For a period of time, it was Gini Wijnaldum, and then Naby Keita fell into that category, some even questioned Thiago. Now the focus is on Curtis Jones.
The 22-year-old forced had a difficult 2022/23 season due to injury but forced his way into the starting XI after Klopp tweaked the system towards the end of the campaign. The Liverpool number 17 has been a regular starter throughout this 17-match unbeaten run and yet there are some out there unconvinced he has a future in the team.
For some, he doesn’t score or assist enough.
On paper, four goal involvements in his last 14 starts isn’t great but it also isn’t as bad as some make it out to be. If he played all 38 Premier League games, his current average would see him finish with 11 goal involvements. That isn’t a bad return for a player who isn’t in the team to score or assist.
The idea that he should be doing more in the final third stems from the fact he started life as an attacker. There’s an expectation that he should be hitting similar numbers to, say, Martin Odegaard. But that just isn’t possible in the role he’s being used in.
Jones, like Wijnaldum was, is a facilitator. He’s the counterweight in the team. A key cog in the midfield machine.
He’s often accused of holding onto the ball for too long but what if that is by design?
Liverpool need a solid base in midfield if Trent Alexander-Arnold is looking to make something happen whenever he’s in possession. He needs the ball in good areas and Jones plays his part in ensuring the ball sticks in these zones.
Likewise, if Mohamed Salah, Dominik Szoboszlai, Andrew Robertson and Alexis Mac Allister are all given the opportunities to play killer passes, you need to ensure you have someone supplying them with that ammunition.
Attackers aren’t the only payers to need a reliable supply line. Creators need one too.
That is Jones in this current set-up. He’s regularly positing a pass success rate of over 90%, for example. In fact, since returning to the starting XI this season following his injury, he’s completed a minimum of 93% of his passes across three matches.
Contrast that to the opening two games of the season when Cody Gakpo filled in as a left-sided centre-midfielder. The versatile Dutchman completed just 78% of his passes across those two matches and his pass volume was nowhere near that of Jones’. He wasn’t seeing much of the ball and when he was, he was giving it away. It meant it was difficult for Liverpool to control the games. They only got to grips with Bournemouth after ditching the 3-2-2-3 and moving Alexander-Arnold back into more of a traditional right-back role.
Granted, Gakpo isn’t a midfielder by trade but neither was Jones. You could argue that Szoboszlai wasn't either but he’s adapted seamlessly. You either have the profile for it or you don’t.
Josh Williams was on Redmen TV earlier this week and the Deep Dive show focused on Jones. He put together a graphic showing key passes made by Liverpool players this season and only Salah has managed more than Robertson.
Why am I flagging this? Because Jones is a key reason as to why the Scotland captain is able to post such numbers.
Whereas last season, the number 26 was making up part of the back three during the build-up, he’s now afforded much more freedom to attack because of the positions Jones takes up. In the still above, you see Jones playing as the left-sided centre-back with Robertson (highlighted) as part of the front five.
Jones is comfortable in these wide areas having come through the ranks as a winger. He’s good under pressure and confident in possession, so he’s a safe base for the Reds.
It happened on countless occasions against West Ham, with Jones dropping into the back three to open up a passing option. This allows Robertson to get forward and create chances.
Jones also has the flexibility to fill in elsewhere though, and this is what makes him such a valuable asset to this team.
Early on, he makes a run from midfield to occupy Kurt Zouma. It meant the entire back four of the West Ham defence were basically in one-versus-one situations. It also meant the former Chelsea defender couldn’t as the sweeper behind Vladimir Coufal if he was beaten for pace by Diaz.
In the next example, Jones is holding the width and this allows Diaz to occupy more central areas. In this instance, the Colombian’s position forces Edson Alvarez to vacate his midfield position and track his run because Zouma and Nayef Aguerd are trying to double up on Darwin. But this then gives Liverpool more time and space in the middle third if the ball is worked inside, with both Mac Allister and Szoboszlai in a fair bit of space.
West Ham have every single outfield player in a defensive position in the screenshot. So if the ball is played to either the Liverpool number 10 or 8, there’s going to be no immediate pressure on them and they will be able to pick out a pass.
This doesn’t all happen because of Jones, but without him, it isn’t entirely possible. Liverpool can be this flexible because of how versatile the number 17 is. It gives them different ways to attack. It is why, in the three starts he’s made this season, the Reds have scored nine goals and conceded just two.
The underlying numbers are good, too, with Klopp’s side creating chances with an Expected Goals total of 7.84 while only allowing the opposition chances worth 2.49.
Jones does the dirty work too and against West Ham he won the second-highest number of tackles (4) with only Alvarez (5) able to beat his tally.
The 22-year-old just makes it easier for others and you need players like that in your team to be successful. You need it for balance.
If you analyse him as that sort of player, you realise how good he’s been.