Is this the real Curtis Jones? Liverpool’s opinion-splitter is fighting hard for his Reds future
It used to be Jordan Henderson, didn’t it? Perhaps Lucas Leiva before that, and in days gone by it might have been Danny Murphy or Ray Houghton or Ronnie Whelan. What is it about Liverpool midfielders and their battle for appreciation?
The Reds, seemingly, have always had at least one player who splits opinion among supporters, and right now it appears Curtis Jones has taken on that mantle.
The 22-year-old has been enjoying a decent run in Jurgen Klopp's side of late. Wednesday’s win at West Ham was Jones’ fifth successive start in the Premier League, his best run in more than 12 months.
After a season disrupted heavily by injury, the young Scouser is clearly relishing the chance to be back on the pitch and showing what he can do. His performance against West Ham, as it was at Leeds previously, was that of a player with both a point to prove and a role to play, going forward.
And with Liverpool set to embark upon a significant, and overdue, rebuild of their midfield this summer, Jones’ return to action, and his return to form, may have come at just the right time, both for player and club.
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Earning Klopp’s trust
Klopp was certainly impressed by Jones’ contribution at West Ham. “He was super-important,” he told his post-match press conference. “He set the tone again with the first counter-pressing situation.
“He is in a really good moment, a really good moment, and [that is] super-helpful.”
The Reds boss has spoken recently about “the ticket” into his starting XI, and how pressing and off-the-ball work is as important as anything a player does in possession.
That suits Jones, whose strength lies in his ability to retain possession, usually through simple, short passes and combinations, and, crucially, his ability to help win the ball back in the opposition half, forcing turnovers and picking up second balls by being in the right position regularly.
“This team is set up now for the defending, for the defensive readiness,” Klopp said. “This is a ticket into the team.
“That doesn't mean the other boys don't do that, but these guys now do it like animals, if you want – and really, I like that, how we chase the ball again and these kinds of things.
“On top of that, we are able to play quite good football and Curtis is involved in that as well, absolutely.”
At the moment, Jones is keeping seasoned midfielders - Thiago Alcantara, James Milner - as well as another highly-gifted youngster - Harvey Elliott - out of the Liverpool team. And while his performances are perhaps not as flashy or as decisive as some would like, he is clearly doing enough to impress his manager at the moment.
And that, really, is the thing that matters.
Wednesday’s game at West Ham was Jones’ 91st senior appearance for Liverpool, an impressive figure considering he emerged at a time when the Reds have been competing year-on-year for the biggest prizes in football. There have not been many games in recent years that haven't had something riding on them.
Jones was earmarked for success at a young age, making his Under-18s bow at 15, before being handed his professional debut in the FA Cup at Wolves shortly before his 18th birthday in January 2019.
It was during the following campaign, 2019-20, that he really exploded though. Having scored the winning penalty at the Kop End in a Carabao Cup win over Arsenal, and made his Premier League bow at Bournemouth, Jones announced himself to the world with a stunning winning goal as Liverpool defeated Merseyside rivals Everton in the FA Cup at Anfield in January 2020.
He followed that up with another strike at Shrewsbury in the next round, and then captained a young Reds side at Anfield in the replay, the youngest skipper in Reds history.
By the end of the campaign, he had more than a dozen senior appearances, and a Premier League winners’ medal, to his name. The curve was very much an upward one.
And there has been significant progress since, too. Jones played 34 times in the 2020-21 campaign, and 27 times last season. He has scored in the Premier League and the Champions League, and played 14 times for England at U21 level, scoring four goals.
Despite that, there is a feeling that he is not as far along in his development as many expected. While peers - Phil Foden, perhaps, or Bukayo Saka - have been able to establish themselves as stars for their respective clubs, Jones is still fighting for approval.
Part of that is down to bad luck. He has suffered at least three freak injuries since the start of the 2021-22 campaign - a bang on the head which kept him out of the opening games, an eye injury suffered in training which sidelined him for nearly two months, and a stress reaction in his tibia which has limited his training and game time severely this season.
Prior to this latest run, he had been able to start only two games, with the injury making it impossible to enjoy a full week of training, pain-free.
Now, it appears he has come through that period, able to train fully and reaping the benefits. “From the moment he was allowed to train properly again, it looked – step by step – really good,” Klopp said this week. He will hope that continues.
Why fans remain split
On the face of it, Jones should really be something of a fans’ favourite. He is talented, confident, works hard and he has been with the club since the age of nine. He’s a Liverpool lad, as well as a Liverpool player.
But while he clearly has big support among the Reds’ fanbase, he also has a lot of doubters still to win over. Plenty are unconvinced as to his role in the team, and whether he has the tools to become a regular, a real regular, in Klopp’s side.
Maybe some of that comes down to that early hype and expectation. In Liverpool’s youth teams, Jones was a creative hub, who would pull off outrageous tricks, dribble past players for fun, and create and score goals.
We have seen flashes of that player at senior level, but there has also been a clear plan to smooth off some of those edges and to turn the showman into a far more functional, safe kind of player.
At times, indeed, it can feel a little too safe. There are occasions when Jones needs to move the ball quicker, to back himself with a shot at goal or a decisive final pass. Where some of his age - Foden, Saka, Jude Bellingham - influence games through goals and assists as well as their tactical and physical qualities, Jones has 18 goal contributions in 91 appearances for Liverpool. Not enough for an attack-minded player of such talent - even if only 54 of those 91 appearances have been starts.
The feeling generally, even among his backers, is that there is more in the locker, more levels to be found. He’s shown, in spells, that he can do the things Klopp wants him to do, and which will get him into the team, but can he make the next step? At 22, that is a question still to be answered.
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A big summer
It barely needs saying, but this is a big summer for Jones, and it is not too dramatic to suggest that he faces a fight for his Anfield career.
Liverpool, we know, are going to spend money on midfielders. They aren’t getting Bellingham, but they have been linked to pretty much everyone else in recent weeks, from Mason Mount and Conor Gallagher, to Alexis Mac Allister, Moises Caicedo and even Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips.
Whoever arrives, the expectation is that they will be looking to go straight into Klopp’s first XI, meaning the likes of Jones, and more experienced players like Fabinho, Henderson and Thiago, will have a battle on their hands.
Nothing new there. A club like Liverpool demands competition for places, it needs it. For Jones, the plan must be straightforward; finish this campaign strongly, and then return for pre-season training fit, fresh and ready to show his teeth.
The challenge awaits
As stated, Jones is not the only one to find himself with his back against the wall this summer.
Elliott, for example, has found himself sidelined recently despite being a mainstay in the team for much of the season. The 20-year-old, like Jones, is a huge talent and a diligent professional, although doubts still remain as to his suitability for a midfield role in a Klopp side, long-term.
Doubts also persist around Fabio Carvalho, for whom opportunities have been almost non-existent, post-World Cup. The former Fulham man, indeed, is already being linked with a summer loan move, although Liverpool insist there has been no movement on that front yet.
Plenty of other youngsters will be hoping to enjoy a strong pre-season, too. Stefan Bajcetic was one of the success stories of this season before suffering a groin issue in March, and should be a big part of the future, but Calvin Ramsay has barely featured since his arrival from Aberdeen last summer.
The full-back is viewed as a player of considerable potential, as is another Scot, Ben Doak, a 17-year-old winger who has enjoyed first-team exposure off the bench this season, and who has shone for the U21s and U19s.
Other youngsters hoping to impress include Tyler Morton, who has had a solid season on loan in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers, full-back Conor Bradley, who has impressed in League One at Bolton, attacking midfielder Bobby Clark and winger Kaide Gordon, whose progress has been checked by a pelvic injury which has sidelined him for more than a year. Look out for defenders Luke Chambers and Jarell Quansah, too, in pre-season.
Jones, though, is arguably the player facing the most important challenge of all. He’s back in the side for now, but can he stay there even after Liverpool have rebuilt their midfield?
And if he does, for how much longer will he continue to split opinion?