It was a breakthrough captain for Curtis Jones in 2020/21, and despite a downturn in minutes towards the end of the season, all signs point to a big role moving forward.
Soon after the end of Liverpool’s title-winning campaign, the club announced a new five-year contract for their Scouse midfielder.
Later that month, Jones vacated his No. 48 shirt to take the No. 17 most recently worn by Ragnar Klavan, but more famously by both Steve McManaman and Steven Gerrard.
Shirt numbers may be increasingly arbitrary in the modern game, but a young player ‘trading up’ is often a signifier of an increase in prominence at first-team level.
Jones certainly enjoyed that in the season just gone, and it should be a marker of more things to come for the 20-year-old from Toxteth.
Curtis Jones, 2020/21
Started: 22 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 12
Unused sub: 16
Overall Season Rating: 7.33 (10th)
After making 12 appearances in the previous campaign, Jones’ tally of 34 in his follow-up season paints the picture of a genuine breakthrough.
He had already scored the winner in a Merseyside derby, and a decisive penalty in the front of the Kop, but 2020/21 saw the academy graduate firmly establish himself as a first-team regular.
His integration began gradually, with Jurgen Klopp preferring the likes of Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita in midfield, but as injuries began to take their toll, Jones’ exposure increased.
It helped that he took the opportunity and ran with it, with an outstanding display against Atalanta in the Champions League followed up by another against Leicester in the Premier League.
He netted his first Champions League goal to clinch the 1-0 victory over Ajax in December, which proved to be his most productive month in a Liverpool shirt so far.
The young midfielder started six of a possible eight games, covering for injuries to Keita, Thiago and James Milner along with the need for Fabinho to drop into defence.
During that run, however, Jones was subjected to strong criticism for his role in Semi Ajayi’s equaliser in the 1-1 draw with West Brom, leading to a public backing from his manager.
“One-hundred percent he learns from things like this, definitely,” Klopp said.
“It’s a very intense period for him as well, and how he did so far is absolutely outstanding. I don’t know what would have been when we have all the injuries and he wouldn’t have been there.
“I’m really happy about everything. Football players make mistakes or make the wrong decisions, I knew that before.”
A quiet spring
It is possible, however, that Klopp took a more sensitive approach to Jones’ development as a result, with his game time dropping following the turn of the new year.
With Fabinho and Thiago able to return to midfield, and Wijnaldum an almost ever-present, the youngster’s minutes gradually decreased.
He was still trusted against the likes of Man City, RB Leipzig and Everton as a busy February turned to March, but his outing in the 1-0 loss to Chelsea at Anfield proved to be his penultimate start of the season.
There were five consecutive games as an unused substitute – during which time Klopp turned to Keita, Milner, Xherdan Shaqiri and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain instead – before half an hour on the pitch over three appearances off the bench.
A first start in two months came in the 2-1 victory over West Brom, but the time away from the teamsheet had clearly taken its toll.
In March, April and May, Jones played 151 of a possible 1,350 minutes (11.2%), having been on the pitch for 1,061 of 1,890 available minutes (56.1%) in the previous three months.
This is despite only Wijnaldum, Andy Robertson and Mohamed Salah making the matchday squad more often than Jones (50 times), and only nine players making more appearances.
Whether that was Klopp protecting a young player who had been overly relied upon throughout the winter, or simply the need for more experience and proven quality in the run-in, is unclear.
But Jones showed enough throughout the campaign to suggest next season could be an even bigger one.
The next Scouser in our team
There are two schools of thought when it comes to Jones’ role next season.
It could be that he maintains a similar level of importance, given he is still only 20 and Thiago, Fabinho and Henderson could all be ahead of him in the pecking order.
But the departure of Wijnaldum on a free transfer, and the club’s reported willingness to push forward without signing a replacement, could hint at a major step up for the No. 17.
Wijnaldum was an often misunderstood player, with two of his most valuable attributes being his ball retention and his sheer durability, rather than anything spectacular.
Interesting, then, is that Jones (92.2%) registered the second-highest passing accuracy within the Liverpool squad last season, behind only the Dutchman himself (92.7%), while Wijnaldum was the only midfielder to have been available for more games.
It’s worth noting too that only Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota scored more goals, and only Salah, Mane, Firmino, Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold laid on more assists.
If Klopp is looking for a physically adept, press-resistant midfielder he can rely upon to start week after week, then he may have already unearthed one within the club’s academy.
Best moment: The winner against Ajax
Worst moment: A costly mistake against West Brom
Role next season: Hard to say, but the smart money is on Jones taking the Gini role