Could Curtis Jones’s ‘cheeky’ performance be a breakthrough for his Liverpool career?

“Through the legs,” reflected Jurgen Klopp. “Cheeky.” There are words to sum up Curtis Jones, who brings an impishness and an impudence to his duties. It is approaching Christmas and Jones, a player with the gifts to be a goalscoring midfielder, had not scored this season. And yet it was entirely in character that he got his elusive first goal by nutmegging a goalkeeper from an acute angle. Cheeky.

If West Ham’s performance at Anfield was a disappointment, Jones embarrassed Alphonse Areola by shooting through his legs. A second brace of his Liverpool career was to follow, the product of the sort of solo run when he seems to acquire momentum. Jones can glide and slalom at the same time, dancing his way forward, making it look easy. He took on six West Ham players, but none came close to stopping him.

“The skillset is immense but sometimes he forgets to speed the game up,” Klopp said. “He has this speed and tempo and doesn’t use it often enough. Hopefully tonight is a like an eye-opener for him: that is a possibility as well. A top game and he looked really sharp throughout. I hope Curtis took a real step forward. That is something he can add on. He can do it, we saw.”

For Klopp, the aim is that Jones’ display in the 5-1 evisceration of West Ham serves as a breakthrough performance. Another one, perhaps, given that it is almost four years since an 18-year-old announced his arrival on the stage with a Merseyside derby winner. It was early evidence that Jones does not suffer from stage fright, that the goals he scores can be memorable.

And if he has had something of a stop-start Liverpool career since then, 2023 could end with Jones as a first choice, a status that had eluded him until now. If it has been the year of the great Liverpool midfield makeover, the Liverpudlian may be emerging as an unexpected winner.

He should be starting in a top-of-the-table clash against Arsenal on Saturday, even if Ryan Gravenberch is fit. Each is a very modern midfielder: there is a newer trend to field dribblers in the centre of the pitch, a theory they can take opponents out of the game by running past them. If it is a seismic shift in thinking – and the definitive midfielders in Klopp’s first great team certainly were not such ball-carriers – Jones can seem something of an adventurer.

Curtis Jones slides to celebrate after scoring his goal

(AP)

“He looked even better to be honest, because he added to his game the acceleration of the ball which is really important,” said Klopp. “He cannot do it against each opponent but there are some opponents where he can do it, where you pass the first line and then you have to go with the ball. His second goal is a crazy goal because you go towards the penalty spot. It’s pretty rare but it is an important thing for him to do and was a really good game. He looked super fresh which was probably not surprising because he has not played thousands of minutes in recent weeks.”

That was in part a product of what Klopp felt was misfortune, the red card at Tottenham that resulted in a three-match ban. Jones finished last season in superb form and began the current campaign well. He has captained Liverpool a couple of times this season, with the seniority of a survivor after an overhaul.

There were times when fans were frustrated with him and Klopp rather more patient. Now, after the exit of the old guard, he has become the most prominent of the midfielders who predated the summer spending spree. Harvey Elliott, also terrific against West Ham, seems pigeonholed as a super-sub. Jones can be a starter. And if there could be greater competition for a place in the future – assuming a specialist, top-class defensive midfielder is signed at some stage, Alexis Mac Allister may covet the spot as the left-sided No 8, while Dominik Szoboszlai’s talent dictates he takes the right-sided role – the question of the succession may be producing an answer some did not anticipate. It could be Jones, a man who might have been a perennial back-up or a player sold to raise funds.

Klopp may not have countenanced such an idea. But the point is not that Jones outlasted Jordan Henderson and James Milner. The departures of Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a greater significance for him and if each was influenced by injuries, they were the attack-minded midfielders who might have been roadblocks to his ambitions.

Liverpool 2.0 are distinguished from their predecessors in various respects. The more positive nature of the midfield is foremost among them. Jones has needed to score more goals, and here he delivered a double in a quarter-final, each with a blend of ability and audacity. It is the Curtis Jones package.