Jurgen Klopp smiled even as the rain battered the Lincoln City dugouts as he reflected on Curtis Jones’ performance at an improvised press conference almost a year ago to the day: “He’s an exceptional talent. We will have some fun with him I am pretty sure in the future.”
Jones starred on that September night, dictating the play as well as scoring twice, but Klopp could smile again because Jones had done it not just in the Carabao Cup but the Champions League.
As Fabinho and Jordan Henderson were exuding calm, Jones was having fun, involved in all five of Liverpool goals in Porto but pleasing his demanding manager with his industry too; pressing, winning back possession, involved “everywhere and in everything,” as Klopp neatly put it.
If a pre-match stomach complaint really meant gut-churning nerves, they did not show. A statement display on the big stage capped a week in which he made a milestone appearance against Norwich and a goalscoring one at Brentford. Notice of his ambitions has been newly served.
“He was the full package against Porto, offensively and defensively. Yes, he’s in a good moment,” Klopp smiles, speaking with Sky Sports at Liverpool’s Kirkby training ground ahead of Sunday’s showdown with Manchester City at Anfield.
There is a pause as he considers Jones’ Liverpool journey so far, a recognition that the Toxteth lad mentored by Steven Gerrard as he rocketed through the youth ranks and became the club’s youngest captain, has already emerged and re-emerged – but a sense that there is still so much to come.
He barely played 90 minutes from March onwards and then missed the opening fixture of this season with concussion but injuries to Harvey Elliott and Thiago Alcantara, while regretful, have meant opportunities and the 20-year-old has seized them.
It is why Klopp feels vindicated by his reluctance to sanction time away after Jones’ first-team breakthrough in 2019, adamant that simple minutes were no substitute for the minutiae of his training sessions, determined the youngster be further stitched in Liverpool fabric.
“People have asked me a hundred times, ‘Can he go on loan? What about going there to get more match practice?’ No, let him be here. That’s the good thing about being really committed to the club as a young boy. He will maybe not have 30, 40 games a season at 18 or 19 but he can still learn so much.
“I didn’t want to let him go to play maybe 30 games in League One. I wanted him here so that he learns our football. And that’s what he did.
“You can learn that off-the-ball work when you stay here because we insist so much on it. For a No. 10 who, for all his youth was involved always on the ball, to get that into your DNA is not easy. It needs time.
“It’s our job to give him all the information we can about the game – offensive, defensive – but when you are around the first team at 17, you have more time to absorb it. I’m really happy we’re now seeing the results on the pitch.”
Jones was commanding in a defensive role against Norwich, before being allowed to roam in his more familiar position on the left of a midfield three. Against Porto, he offered impetus and appetite and yet was dropping into deeper Henderson territory too, filling in for Andy Robertson when required, showing that, yes, he was absorbing, evolving on the job.
“It’s a complex position because you’re threatened from all directions, you’re in the closest spaces, you have to have the best awareness,” Klopp says, considering what he needs from Jones, from all his midfielders.
“You have to be influential defensively and offensively. You have to set the tone. How we press changes mostly from the midfielders – do they jump in high or not, do they step back? How we attack depends on them too; they have to be the most flexible – in the half-spaces, on the wing, dropping in – that’s why it’s so complex.”
With Thiago, caught between a makeshift defence and misfiring forwards last term, pulling up after finding rhythm, and Naby Keita’s fitness seemingly fragile, it is timely that Jones is stepping back out of the shadows but the challenge is consistency now.
“He’s had highs already and there have been downs too but when you’re here, at home, who cares? You learn from it and you get stronger. He’s stronger now for sure than he was last year, even though last season already he’d played a few really good games.
“He was on the teamsheet, then wasn’t, then wasn’t even in the squad but that’s normal. He’s not the player to think I’m not in the team, I won’t train hard. He wants it. He’s now in a really good moment and we have to make sure it lasts.”
They are collectively in a good moment, Liverpool: top of the fledgling Premier League table on a 16-game unbeaten run, in command of their Champions League group, scorers of more goals and creators of more chances than any of their domestic rivals.
If last season’s wretched title defence – effectively snuffed out by City’s 4-1 win at Anfield in February – took rotten root in defensive injuries that wreaked havoc far further upfield, Liverpool are riding the challenges that have come their way so far.
As Jones has grasped his chance in midfield, James Milner shackled Porto’s Luis Diaz so effectively – as well as delivering a delicious cross for Sadio Mane – that Reds are likely to relish the veteran free transfer’s duel with Jack Grealish in spite of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s absence.
A manager who has long sought marginal gains is thinking back to August in Evian, where the groundwork was laid for minds as well as muscles.
His is the type of empathetic leadership that recruited a surfer for breathing exercises as a well as a throw-in coach, neurological experts to help the likes of Mo Salah reach a “flow state” for set-piece success as well as nutritionists, but the adventurer Ben Fogle struck a chord with his motivational talk about mental agility under pressure.
“I absolutely loved it! His expeditions are insane!” Klopp grins, recalling Fogle’s tales of swimming with crocodiles, crossing the Atlantic and scaling Everest.
“We’re not saying we have the same challenges or that we’re in life-threatening circumstances; the challenges are different of course but in many, many moments, we have to have the same mindset. We have to break through something, break down something, and when you might be thinking, ‘No chance!’, you have to be stubborn, resilient… all these qualities.
“What gives Ben the confidence to get through it is the preparation, the people he’s working with. Without them, he said he’d have no chance of rowing the Atlantic. He told me he could make me row the Atlantic! I said, ‘You don’t know me, really, no chance!’.
“But you get really get a sense for what is possible out there, what crazy things happen on this planet because of an idea.
“Our idea was to be a really successful team and we are on our way. Nobody needed us or wanted us to be successful apart from our fans but we thought let’s give it a try. That’s how Ben thinks. He probably will not stop and we will not stop.”
Nor does the Premier League stop, as Klopp knows too well, shaking his head still in disbelief about his side’s wild 3-3 draw with Brentford: “The intensity of that game! I heard so many people who watched it say that it’s only possible in the Premier League. It’s true.
“The league is so strong. What Chelsea are doing, what [Manchester] United are doing… Arsenal, three weeks ago, everyone was wondering about them but now they’re getting closer to the football they want to play. Tottenham? Last week they struggled but they will be back…”
A title challenge feels mandatory for Chelsea and United at least with the respective arrivals of Romelu Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo, even if the latter’s bare-chested heroics cast a misleading complexion at Old Trafford. Might Liverpool, with Salah firing and Virgil van Dijk back in a side that won the Premier League at a canter in 2020, have been overlooked, underplayed against their big-spending rivals?
“It doesn’t bother me,” Klopp says with a shrug. “I know how the world is. If you don’t buy this and this, and they do, people say you should have strengthened.
“Yeah, there’s always space for that but we did it in the right moments when the player was there for us. When it’s there, we go for it; when it’s not, we don’t try with another version.
“We’re different, there are different philosophies; our owners have their philosophy and we won the league and the Champions League so it cannot be that bad. And we are really in the situation where we want to improve this team and this club constantly. What other people think and say, I’m really not bothered about.”
Only City – “still probably the best team in Europe” – occupy Klopp’s mind right now.
He expects them to “strike back” after defeat to Paris Saint-Germain yet there were similarities between that contest and City’s ominous victory against Chelsea; familiar patterns, just moments deciding results.
The Liverpool fans who could only watch on, who could only set off fireworks behind the Kop back in February will be back to roar and cajole their side on Sunday. They will need, Klopp says, a “complete performance”; the full package, like Curtis Jones in Porto, but all of them. And they will need moments.
“Against City, the chances you get, the situations you have… you have to finish them.
“Yeah, they’re a proper football team in terms of possession, but defensively they’re so strong too, that’s the thing. In the last home game, we had a lot of good moments but not in the final third and that’s what kills the game a little bit.
“We have to make sure that we create – for that you have to be brave – but then take the moments, finish them off.”