Liverpool have signed one midfielder in over four years, but Jürgen Klopp does have a backup plan. The time may finally have come to properly deploy it.
There are many theories about what has gone wrong with the Liverpool midfield, but if there is a consensus, it’s that signing one true midfielder in four-and-a-half years was a mistake. There have been many reasons cited for this: from financial decisions made around the pandemic or untimely injuries preventing a sale, to targets choosing other destinations, or, most pointedly, an unwarranted faith in the longevity of the manager’s trusted lieutenants.
Jürgen Klopp has always believed his midfielders deserve more respect — a subject he turns to whenever the subject of transfers is raised. That loyalty has unquestionably played a part in forging the belief and strength of character that has brought this team so much success. And yet, this season, those same traits have come under scrutiny, as the industry and intensity that earned that loyalty appears to have taken its toll on everyone at once.
The focus has been primarily on the veterans of midfield. The quintet in or beyond their prime years have been found wanting this season for form and fitness: James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcântara, Fabinho and Naby Keïta. The extremes of the midfield age profile — nobody outside that quintet is over 21 years old — have been well-documented, but Klopp could reasonably argue that he had a contingency plan that he has been unable to utilise: Curtis Jones.
Jones is in his fourth season in the first team, and it’s fair to say that the jury is still out on his long-term future at the club. Yet to nail down a consistent role in the side, his seven-minute cameo in the atrocious 3-1 loss to Brentford was his 50th Premier League appearance out of a possible 114 in what is approaching three-and-a-half campaigns. The numbers look even worse when noting that 25 of those appearances occurred in the 20/21 season — a time when his main competition for places were pinballing between the treatment room and the centre of defence.
In short, Jones has yet to produce a run of form that demands he remains in the team. He is treading a path followed by Andrew Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ibrahima Konaté and most recently, Harvey Elliott, but so far, the young Scouser has been thwarted by roadblocks. Cruel and unusual injuries such as a freak concussion, an even freakier eye injury and a nagging stress fracture have increased his frustration, but staying fit isn’t his only problem.
A new five-year contract in November suggests he retains the manager’s long-term faith, but gaining short-term trust has been more difficult. Since his breakout season in 2020/21, Jones has been unavailable through injury for only 13 of the 55 Premier League games. He has taken the field in less than half (20) of the remaining 42. More often than not, he has been surplus to requirements.
Time and again, the task fell to the chosen few. Klopp has used ten players in central midfield this season, amassing 5010 total minutes. Sixty-seven per cent of those minutes (3349) have gone to Milner, Henderson, Thiago and Fabinho. As a man who has always placed mountainous demands on his midfielders, giving such a large share of the role to four players with an average age of 32 can’t have been Plan A.
For many of the young midfielders (or at least those capable of playing in midfield), such as Stefan Bajčetić, Bobby Clark and Fábio Carvalho, their share is a fair reflection of their current status. Jones will no doubt feel his slice of the pie (176 minutes) should be larger, especially compared to Elliott, whose slice (1015 minutes) is nearly ten times that of his.
The 19-year-old’s place ahead of Jones in the pecking order will surely sting. Despite struggling at times in an unfamiliar midfield role, Elliott has still featured in every Premier League game this season. It’s hard to know to what extent Jones’ unconventional and inconsistent recovery from injury has played a part in Klopp’s reluctance, but it surely can’t have helped.
His time on the pitch has shown flashes of promise, particularly in attacking areas. A high ranking in successful dribbles (93rd percentile, via FBref), shot-creating actions (85th percentile) and progressive passes (78th percentile) paint a picture of a player making an efficient and decisive contribution. And yet, his sole Premier League start this season, a damaging defeat away at Nottingham Forest, can only be considered a failed audition.
Defensively, Jones has a lot to improve upon — not only the dirty work of winning tackles and interceptions (7th percentile), but the more cerebral elements such as blocking passing lanes (38th percentile) and retaining possession (first percentile).
Jones might consider his situation unlucky, but he’ll know what to do to turn those fortunes around. Klopp has been vocal about what “the next steps” should be, as reported by The Mirror a year ago:
“I love the boy and I love the potential he has. But we have to now really make sure that he fulfils the potential he has on the pitch. You have these kinds of conversations when you are not 100 per cent happy with the moment. He’s young — very young — but from what I see his potential is just incredible. So we have to find a way to show that much more often.”
While the German is unlikely to go into further detail with reporters, he certainly will have in private. It’s unclear whether or not Klopp is any happier with the moment Jones finds himself in 12 months on, but with those four pillars of the midfield all crumbling, it can’t be long before he’s given a chance to stake his claim finally.
With a distinct possibility that this month’s transfer business could begin and end with Cody Gakpo, the reintegration of Jones could be the most viable short-term solution to re-energise the midfield.