There is a strong case to make that Curtis Jones is the most underrated player at Liverpool, but to shed that tag the midfielder has another big step to make.
Such has been his longevity within the first-team setup at Liverpool, it is easy to forget that Jones is still only 21.
An early favourite of Jurgen Klopp‘s after graduating from Steven Gerrard’s tutelage at under-18 level, the confident youngster was first involved on the run to Kyiv at the tail end of 2017/18.
He has grown in stature ever since, but there is still a sense of potential unfulfilled – an ongoing theme throughout his third season as a regular in the senior squad.
But there is a reason Klopp has taken so fondly to his No. 17, and there were clear signs throughout 2021/22 that Jones has a bigger role to play in the near future.
Curtis Jones, 2020/21
Started: 18 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 9
Unused sub: 15
Overall Season Rating: 6.87
The real Curtis Jones
“Curt is coming of age,” Andy Robertson, who considers himself a mentor to Jones, said last summer.
“I thought last season at times he was outstanding but it’s now about the consistency, it’s always about that and doing that on a week-to-week basis.”
The left-back added: “I hope this is a big season for him…I just hope that he can find that consistency, keep that hunger that he’s got and he’ll only get better.”
It is a familiar line that if Jones can only sustain the high levels he has long been capable of, he would be vying for a first-choice role in Klopp’s starting lineup.
That is a sentiment shared by the manager, his team-mates and by many supporters, too.
It was a frustrating blow, then, as Jones suffered a head injury in the final friendly of pre-season, hampering his momentum just as Harvey Elliott took off.
He missed the first game of the season as a precaution and was overlooked for the next three – the last of which saw Elliott sidelined with a horror ankle injury that, in many ways, paved the way for the academy graduate to come back in.
In the weeks following Elliott’s layoff, Liverpool began to see the real Curtis Jones: uber-confident, constantly showing for the ball, taking players on and showcasing that natural flair, but with a real security in possession, too.
His first start of the campaign came as a No. 6, controlling the midfield in the 3-0 win over Norwich in the League Cup, and four days later he scored his first and only goal in the hectic 3-3 draw with Brentford.
Four more days after that, Jones produced a mesmeric turn as he laid on four goals in the 5-1 rout of Porto, prompting Klopp to exclaim: “Let’s keep going Curtis!”
Given the manager acknowledged he had “played defensively a top-class game” at the Estadio do Dragao, it was perhaps no surprise that Jones was handed a fourth consecutive start as Man City arrived at Anfield.
That 2-2 draw between title rivals ushered in the October international break, and began a slew of problems for Jones, with Klopp furious as he felt England under-21s manager Lee Carsley’s use of the midfielder aggravated a groin injury.
On the pitch, Jones is a very durable player, one who appeared capable of filling the void left by Gini Wijnaldum upon his departure to Paris Saint-Germain.
But he found himself on the wrong side of fortune on a number of occasions throughout 2021/22.
After a head injury in pre-season and a groin injury during a standout run in the side in October, Jones suffered a freak eye injury in a training session in November.
“You learn a lot about what can happen to human beings when you are a football manager!” Klopp reacted after his No. 17 got a finger in the eye before Atletico Madrid’s visit to Anfield.
“I’ve never had something like that. It will be fine, but it needs a while.”
That “while” ended up being a month-and-a-half, with Jones missing 12 games after also contracting COVID-19 during a miserable period.
It undoubtedly stymied his progress in the side, and led to a “long talk” in which Klopp urged his protege to “make the next steps” and “show how good he can actually be.”
The absence of Naby Keita for the Africa Cup of Nations, coupled with fitness woes for Thiago, then brought a consistent run in the side that saw Jones start nine times and come off the bench twice more over 15 games.
He was, for that spell, one of Liverpool’s most consistent players, and Klopp was delighted with the results – but after the 1-0 loss to Inter Milan that saw Jones shine despite the result, he only started three more times and never in consecutive games.
There were, of course, bigger fish to fry than to coax form out of a prodigious talent in those final months of the season, but it is hard to escape the feeling that he was hard done by.
A bigger role ahead?
One of the main criticisms of Jones is that he has struggled to translate the game-changing quality he showed week in, week out at academy level to the first-team stage.
But it is an entirely different role that he is performing under Klopp; one far removed from the shackle-free attacking duty he enjoyed with the under-23s.
His is a functional job in the engine room – taking up possession, progressing through midfield and handing it off – with the second-highest passing accuracy of any Liverpool player last season (90.4%).
That has seen his position become undervalued by many onlookers, as was often the case with his successor, Wijnaldum.
As Liverpool seemingly prepare to head into the new campaign without bringing in a new midfielder, however, there is scope for Jones to take up that mantle as a more progressive outlet.
There is fierce competition for his spot, of course, not least with Fabio Carvalho joining Elliott and Tyler Morton among the young options available to Klopp.
But a proposed shift to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the signing of Darwin Nunez to spearhead the attack, could take the reins off to an extent for Jones, who already flexed his versatility with stints out wide last season.
Klopp may be his biggest advocate – repeatedly insisting the youngster stays at Anfield rather than head out on loan, despite offers from clubs with as high a profile as RB Leipzig, who offered a two-year stay – but he is also vocal in demanding more.
In no way should the new campaign be seen as make-or-break for Jones, but it presents a key opportunity to prove he can be a long-term starter for Liverpool.
Best moment: Four assists in a star turn vs. Porto
Worst moment: Freak training injury and 12 games out
Role next season: Regular option in midfield, challenging for starts