Curtis Jones emerges at just the right time as Liverpool face a big midfield decision

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Curtis Jones scored his first Champions League goal as Liverpool beat Ajax 1-0 on Tuesday, with the No. 17 emerging as a genuine long-term starter for Jurgen Klopp.

A narrow scoreline in a game where there was much to enjoy. If a European Super League does eventually become a reality, then regular games against Ajax will be a welcome side effect.

This is how I’d imagine a game of football would have looked if the directors of The Matrix had crowbarred a football scene into one of the offerings from the Keanu Reeves-led movie franchise.

Beyond the joy of progressing to the knockout stages of the Champions League, topping the group with a game to spare within the process, the biggest pluses to Tuesday night were the boys-becoming-men performances of Caoimhin Kelleher, Neco Williams and Curtis Jones.

An understandable sharp intake of breath could be heard across the red half of Merseyside when news of Alisson’s latest injury setback emerged.

Hopes that it was no more than a malicious rumour eventually dashed, it was a surprise to see Kelleher named as the Brazilian’s replacement, rather than Adrian.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, December 1, 2020: Liverpool's goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher (R) celebrates with Curtis Jones after the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Liverpool FC and AFC Ajax at Anfield. Liverpool wo 1-0 and qualified for the Round of 16. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

As things turned out, it was to be a pleasant surprise, as Cork’s finest put in a magnificently assured and confident display, pulling off a collection of impressive saves, competent handling, fine positioning and intelligent covering of his defence when the line was held high.

Kelleher’s was a performance that spoke of a goalkeeper with far more professional first-team experience than that of which he has to his name.

Added to this, a long talk having taken place between player and manager, the Neco of the Williamses put in his best performance so far in a Liverpool shirt.

A player whose previous performances have jarred somewhat, Williams has been under increasing scrutiny. He has taken some wholly unnecessary and distasteful stick on social media, and his performance against Ajax was a huge step in the right direction.

On one hand, it proves to Williams himself that he does have the talent required to cope with a demanding life at Anfield, and on the other, it hopefully reassures a fretful set of fans that, as a teenager, there is a player of purpose in there who just needs the patience and room to grow.

Then comes Jones.

Liverpool's Curtis Jones (no.17) celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game with Neco Williams during the UEFA Champions League Group D match at Anfield, Liverpool.

Jones is ascending at great speed to what is becoming an increasingly pivotal and important role within Jurgen Klopp’s squad.

While we have the best goalkeeper in the world who gets to marshal, when all components are fit once again, a defence that contains the best centre-back, right-back and left-back in the world, something that is complemented by a front three that are at the peak of the powers in terms of age, now supplemented by the arrival of the massively impressive Diogo Jota, the midfield in comparison is a little more turbulent.

When it comes to the Liverpool midfield, we are confronted by tales of injuries, contract stalemates, escalating ages and a sense that even if we know what our strongest combination is, the chances of us fielding it on a regular basis are quite slim.

Arguably, despite having many midfield options at our disposal, we are heading towards a bit of a power vacuum.

Gini Wijnaldum is likely to depart the club next summer, while even if a contract agreement is reached he’s now over the age of 30.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, November 22, 2020: Liverpool’s manager Jürgen Klopp celebrates with Georginio Wijnaldum (R) after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Leicester City FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. Liverpool won 3-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Yes, while we can argue that the age of 30 in footballing terms in 2020 isn’t representative of the age of 30 of even a decade ago, when combined to the fact that Jordan Henderson and Thiago‘s birthdays are both sat within a five-month orbit either side of Gini’s, it does mean that they will age together should they all remain at Liverpool in the seasons ahead.

While James Milner can still turn it on at 34, I wouldn’t want our midfield being heavily reliant upon three 34-year-olds in 2024/25. I’ve mentioned the need for evolution before, and as part of that will come difficult decisions.

You either want to create a lasting dynasty that stretches for a decade or longer, or you’re happy with a successful three- or four-season spike of relevancy before heading back into the ‘big six’ pack, until you hit on another decent plan of attack.

With Henderson too important to dispense with, and Thiago only having just arrived – yet as a player who has only hit the 30-league game a season target once in his career – Wijnaldum will become a casualty of a difference of contract opinion and a need for evolution that won’t be lost on Klopp.

When you subtract Fabinho, who is currently beautifully bailing us out at centre-back, and add in the injury records of Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, then this is where the stage has been handed to Jones.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, November 25, 2020: Liverpool's Curtis Jones during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Liverpool FC and Atalanta BC at Anfield. Atalanta won 2-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Suddenly, Jones has switched from an impatient and precocious talent, watching on from the bench, to an integral part of the Liverpool midfield, thrown copious amounts of trust by Klopp – particularly in the Champions League, a competition he seems most at home in.

With Fabinho occupied elsewhere, and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita unavailable, it is almost as if the Liverpool midfield has had to skip a generation.

By the time the others return they will have a very different midfield rival on their hands, compared to the one they had when they last kicked a ball in centre-ground anger.

A marvellous goal to win the game, Jones isn’t short of confidence, but maybe now he is feeling that if he plays well, a place in the team is his to hold on to.

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