“Defending like a soldier, attacking like a Scouser.” Jürgen Klopp was quoted before their match against West Ham in October when asked about what he wants from his 19-year-old academy graduate. Curtis Jones has surprised many with the number of games he has been given this season, but he has made the absolute most of those chances. With injuries throughout the Liverpool camp, Jones has been given first team action in the Premier League with eight appearances and four in the UEFA Champions League. In each match he has played, he has grown more confident and comfortable within the Liverpool team. Scoring the winner at Anfield against Ajax and delivering a man of the match performances against Fulham and Tottenham has shown Klopp that he is more than a stop-gap in an injury crisis. In this tactical analysis, we will provide a scout report on Curtis Jones, how he fits into Liverpool’s midfield, as well as his abilities in attacking and defending.
To better understand what Curtis Jones brings to Liverpool, we first must understand what his role is within Liverpool’s system. Liverpool, under Klopp, plays in a 4-3-3 formation, but his tactics in this formation allow players to interchange positions depending on where the ball is. The formation below is from Liverpool’s match against Tottenham and shows the movements most often made by the players.
Full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold will push up high providing width. The wingers Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah will invert their runs into central positions, while Roberto Firmino will drop into a false nine position. The central midfielders are primarily functional. If one of the full-backs are pushed further forwards, the central midfielders will move into their position to provide cover. If the central midfielder is ahead of the full-back they will push wide if the ball is on their side. If the ball is on the opposite side they will stay central to provide passing options. Also, the midfield three are always in rotation. If one of the midfielders is out of position another will take up his position to not compromise space.
Now that we understand the role of the midfielders, we can begin our analysis of Curtis Jones within Liverpool’s team. Jones plays predominately as one of the two central midfielders. In the heat map above, we can see he has played most of the matches at either the left or right central midfielder role. This role as mentioned earlier requires functionality and cover for the full-backs if they are ahead of the midfielders, but will also take space when available and create by linking the full-backs and forwards. He may start on the right but will flip to either side throughout matches. He is extremely comfortable on the ball and always asks for the ball to his feet. Jones has a pass completion rate of 93% in the Premier League, and has completed 480 passes. 83% of them have been passed with his right foot on the ground. He has the ability to link play and is seen on the edge of the box waiting for a pass to shoot from range consistently. We will now move forward and begin our analysis of Jones’s attacking and defensive abilities, as well as the attributes he brings to Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side.
Movement off the ball
Jones so far this season has surprised many with how comfortable he has begun to look in Liverpool’s midfield. He has shown great maturity and understanding of the game whilst only being a teenager. His movement off the ball while Liverpool attack shows his understanding and intelligence needed to play in Liverpool’s midfield. His attacking roles interchange depending on where his fellow full-back and winger are positioned when Liverpool have the ball. An example is displayed below from Liverpool’s match against Tottenham.
Here we can see Jones covering the right-back position for Trent Alexander-Arnold. When Liverpool regained possession, Alexander-Arnold was further forward than Jones, thus leading Jones to cover his position. However, if Jones is ahead of the full-back when they have possession, he is allowed to take space further ahead either inside or outside as seen below.
In this phase of play, Robertson has stayed back as the ball is currently on the right side with Alexander-Arnold. Jones can be seen highlighted within the white circle indicating the amount of space he was in on the left-hand side.
The last off-ball movement to note is his positioning just on the edge of the box. Jones has a very good understanding of where to be depending on where the ball is. He understands the movements of the opposing defenders and where space can be found. Below we can see Jones intercepting the ball high up the pitch in their match against Ajax.
Here, Jones has positioned himself well for an interception. From this interception, he passes the ball forward to Jota who then knocks the ball forward to Salah. Meanwhile, Mané and Diogo Jota sprint forward into the box. Jones also runs forward, however, he waits on the edge of the box unmarked.
Thanks to Jota’s late run into the box, he occupies Daley Blind who sprints after him. This leaves Jones unmarked for a pullback which Salah slots right into Jones’s feet. Jones is unlucky here as his curved shot had hit the post. This is not a one-time occurrence either as Jones can be seen in and around the left-hand side of the penalty area on multiple occasions when he is deployed in Liverpool’s midfield. This ability of his is also something that Liverpool have lacked from the midfielders. They provide movement and defensive cover, but Jones has had the ability to add an eye for a goal in the midfield this season for Liverpool.
Creativity on the ball
In terms of movement on the ball, Jones is extremely comfortable with the ball at his feet while linking play, and progressing the ball forward. He demands the ball to his feet and looks to drive forward when given the license to. The buildup to Liverpool’s opening goal against Spurs is a great example of Jones’s ability to link play and progress the ball forward. Below we can see Liverpool’s three-man midfield positioned with Jordan Henderson playing the holding role with Jones on the right and Wijnadlm on the left. Robertson had advanced and Jones comes towards Robertson to receive the ball. Jones receives the pass but is instantly pressured by two Spurs defenders. Thanks to Firmino dropping off into space as highlighted in the white circle, Jones can quickly play a one-two with him.
Firmino plays the ball back to the forward running Jones who drives into the box. His run allowed him to progress into the box, and a bit of luck saw the tackle on Jones allow the ball to find its way to the open Salah to have his shot find the back of the net.
While the tackle on Jones that led to the goal may be seen as luck for the opening goal, it was the run by Jones that allowed this luck to happen. The five defenders were so focused on Jones that they forgot to mark Salah who was left open at the top of the box. This type of driving run also was not a one-time occurrence, you can see Jones making nearly an identical run in the 58th minute against Ajax. However, Jones managed to get a shot off but it was blocked.
Curtis Jones’ dribbling ability allows for him to free up space for his teammates. In Liverpool’s match against Fulham, he had shown on multiple occasions his ability to take on opponents and drag them out of position. An example of this can be seen below.
Jones, currently playing on the right side of central midfield, has just received the ball from Jordan Henderson. As soon as Jones gets the ball, three Fulham players look to close him down. However, in doing so, this leaves Salah, and Alexander-Arnold open on the right-hand side.
Jones’s ability on the ball allows him to drive forward into the Fulham defenders and play a pass with the outside of his foot to Salah. Once Jones makes the pass he then sprints forward to occupy the space that Salah just left. This passage of play ended with Salah turning and playing the ball to Alexander-Arnold whose shot was eventually saved by Fulham’s keeper. That being said, this move was created from Jones’s ability to draw opponents in to free up space for his team. His ability to read space as well as control on the ball gives Liverpool’s midfield more technical ability centrally.
We have now established that Jones is a player that offers creativity on the ball with his ability to progress the ball forward as well as his eye for goal. That being said, his ability defensively has been often overlooked. An analysis of his defensive data proves that he is just as effective as he is going forward.
The scatter plot above shows how many 90 minutes on the pitch Liverpool’s midfielders completed in comparison to their tackles plus interceptions in the Premier League this season. This allows for a comparison of all the midfielders and more specifically how Jones compares to other players within his position. Thanks to the long list of injuries, Jones has now played more minutes than most of the midfielders available. He has also been able to get involved defensively as well. We can’t directly compare him to Henderson or Fabinho as those two have played as the holding midfielder, or in Fabinho’s case at centreback. For Jones, his lead rival and player he would most likely be compared to as of now would be Wijnaldum. Jones currently has completed 5.8 90 minutes, won nine tackles, and has five interceptions. Meanwhile, Wijnaldum has completed 12.8 90s, won 13 tackles, and has seven interceptions. By those numbers, we can see that Jones is providing defensively. Wijnaldum is known for his relentless work and Jones is proving he can put in a shift defensively as well. Playing a full seven 90s less, Jones has won only four tackles less and two fewer interceptions than Wijnaldum. This is not saying that Jones is a better player than Wijnaldum and that he should be picked over him, but it is showing that a young player like Jones is not only providing a different option to Klopp. He is proving to be a creative player centrally who also can defend when required.
Curtis Jones is quickly proving to Jürgen Klopp that he has the ability to defend like a soldier and attack like a Scouser. The 19-year-old has shown maturity with and without the ball. He can execute the functions required of Liverpool’s central midfielders, but he is also able to provide creativity and ball progression that has been lacking in this position. The performances he has had so far this season will give Klopp a problem that many managers will wish they had. Will the young player be able to keep playing when the rest of the injured midfielders come back to full fitness?