A dynamic Liverpool attack that has evolved through the signing of Darwin Núñez could see Jürgen Klopp deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation more often next season, but the Reds need more long-term solutions if it is going to be a system that becomes the new norm. Roberto Firmino is the strongest candidate to feature in the number 10 role, but with just one year remaining on his contract, Klopp must find a new option next season.
That player could be Diogo Jota. Just 25 years old, there is still time for Jota to adapt his game in a way that would benefit him in terms of his link-up play. That factor has perhaps been his biggest criticism since joining the club from Wolves. For a player that has been unstoppable in front of goal, scoring 20 goals last season, his assist tally has left a glaring area of improvement.
As highlighted by FBref, Jota registered 5.5 expected assists (xA) in 35 Premier League games in the last Premier League campaign. It’s not a bad tally at all, particularly considering his game time fell short of the nailed-on starters, but it’s less than half as many as Trent Alexander-Arnold, and similarly far off Salah. Coupled with a pass accuracy of just 75 per cent, it is clear why there is a degree of concern.
Away from the numbers, the problem is clearer. Jota’s ability to link play can be seen to falter through times where there is slight hesitation on passes that players like Firmino or Thiago Alcântara would find consistently. If the Portugal international is able to make strides in that area of his game during the pre-season, his evolution could see him close in on world class status.
Alexander-Arnold has looked to benefit from maintaining sharpness throughout the off-season in the past, as well as being willing to experiment with new forms of training. The Liverpool right-back worked on his vision last year, and it was clear that his focus eventually paid dividends when looking at some of the passes he was able to produce consistently — most notably with his outside of the foot effort against Chelsea in the FA Cup final.
For Jota, it’s clear which area of his game he must improve this summer. The best way for Klopp to allow him to do that could be by giving him regular game time in the number 10 role — even if that is during pre-season friendlies.
The 4-2-3-1 system is likely to be unleashed next month as Liverpool begin to introduce Núñez to heavy-metal football, and it is vital that Klopp ensures there is as much time dedicated to helping players evolve as there is to developing chemistry in different areas of the pitch.
Chemistry will be particularly important for Mohamed Salah and Luis Díaz, who could both see their roles change slightly with the introduction of the Uruguay international. That’s particularly true for Salah, who enjoys working shots inside the box on his left foot — though Núñez’s presence alone will force full-backs to be isolated against the Liverpool duo, which can only be a good thing. The 4-2-3-1 system is the best way of drilling this new dynamic over pre-season, and Jota’s introduction into the number 10 role could provide Klopp with a new weapon.
Jota’s more central role for Portugal at Euro 2020 saw his directness craft frequent chances, with the 25-year-old’s incisive runs too difficult to mark for defenders. In moments where Jota failed to cut the ball back at the right time, Cristiano Ronaldo’s frustration mimicked those of Liverpool fans at times last season.
But given that Jota has always been a player who has solely focused on scoring goals, cutting in from the left flank as well as playing a direct striker role, it is no surprise that it is a matter of a lack of experience rather than potential. With experience in the 10, he could soon develop to Firmino’s level. Even if Klopp does not end up going with the 4-2-3-1 on a permanent basis, using the Portugal star in a more withdrawn role now can only make him a more complete striker for the future.
In many ways, Firmino and Jota create the perfect blend of a player that would be considered among the best in the world if they could merge some of their best qualities together. But there is no time like the present for Jota, who must find the missing string to his bow next season.