Diogo Jota is bringing scruffy goals back in fashion
Yes, there's another star attacker at Liverpool. Don't sleep on this one, though.
Daniel Sturridge never got the respect he deserved.
Part of that was down to injuries. He only managed two seasons in his Premier League career when he was able to play more than 2,000 minutes. It’s a tough pill to swallow, and it certainly doesn’t speak to his character as some unfairly suggested, but it is what it is.
Part of it was down to those unfair perceptions of his character. Those who know him well reject this characterisation, with close friend Micah Richards calling him “one of the nicest – and hardest-working – people I know”. The bad attitude label was put on him during his Chelsea days and stuck during his Liverpool career despite no reports of any such behaviour. In fact, the opposite was the case, with Sturridge helping a young Raheem Sterling integrate into the demands of first-team football. Jürgen Klopp was not shy in getting rid of players who brought disharmony to the dressing room (see: Sakho, Mamadou), but stuck by Sturridge despite limited availability.
But maybe the biggest reason was timing. His best season, a year I believe he was genuinely one of the very best strikers in Europe, was overshadowed by another attacker at Anfield. Luis Suárez decided to go supernova at the exact time Sturridge was playing his best stuff. In the eyes of the footballing public, the causation was obvious: Sturridge was a boat lifted by Suárez’ rising tide. Liverpool’s struggles right after the Uruguayan left reinforced this. But I don’t think it’s right. Sturridge and Suárez just kind of coexisted in the same team, with some of the Englishman’s best games coming when his strike partner was suspended. This was a brilliant striker in his own right who just happened to play with someone even better.
I worry the same perception will haunt Diogo Jota. While Mohamed Salah is clearly the best player in the Premier League this season, Jota is putting up a credible case to be in the chasing pack.
I’ve been thinking for a while about how Liverpool are reverse-engineering a 1990s-style British side. The most notable facet here is how the full backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, play like old fashioned wide midfielders. Liverpool rely on these two to put crosses in and generate chances from there in a similar way to how Manchester United once did it with David Beckham and Ryan Giggs. But now Klopp is bringing back another 90s archetype in a different form: the poacher.
Jota has played upfront and out wide, but he always ends up in the kinds of positions for scruffy “striker’s goals”. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané score plenty, but they’re slightly different types of goals, the sort you’d associate with inverted wingers. Watch Jota’s goals this season (as of a month ago, YouTube compilations are what they are) and you can picture yourself back 25 years ago watching Robbie Fowler or Andy Cole:
(It should go straight to this season, but if not, skip to 2 minutes in)
Jota does have more strengths. He’s an outstanding presser and has a good sprint about him. But he’s not a huge threat with the ball at his feet. Salah, Mané and Roberto Firmino all have him beat for both progressive passes and carries per 90 this season. He also doesn’t collect balls and run onto things as an outlet as well as those three can, coming in behind them all for progressive passes received. What he does do, then, is get on the end of scruffy goals. He has all those old fashioned skills of escaping his man, finding space in the box and getting on the end of crosses.
Let’s illustrate it a little bit. Here are Jota’s Premier League goals this season mapped out:
Nothing outside the box, and only two beyond your real prime goalscoring locations. He has a spot.
Now let’s look at Salah by comparison:
Interestingly, he also hasn’t scored from outside the box yet, despite being renowned for that left foot of his. But he scores a much greater range of goals from different kinds of angles. This is part of why Salah is ultimately a better footballer than Jota. He has a lot of strings to his bow. Jota, on the other hand, is a specialist.
He wants to get in between defenders to receive those crosses from wide. Five of his league goals have been assisted by full backs (three from Robertson, plus one each from Alexander-Arnold and Kostas Tsimikas). By comparison, those same full backs have only assisted Salah once this season (who gets his goals from a wide variety of providers). Salah is the one providing a moment of individual quality, while Jota is the “fox in the box”. If only he had been old enough for Arsène Wenger to sign him instead of Franny Jeffers.
Jota, famously, was not Liverpool’s first choice. They wanted Timo Werner. Through some combination of Covid-era finances, a delayed AFCON, and Chelsea deciding to pounce, that deal didn’t happen. Now, I think Werner would’ve been better at Anfield than he has been at Stamford Bridge, though that’s an article for another day. But I don’t think he would’ve been as good as Jota. Werner, though more of a striker, is similar to Mané in that he always wants to run in behind. That’s great and would’ve fit at Liverpool, but they already have Mané for that. He wouldn’t add the kinds of scruffy goals between the posts Jota has been scoring. Bringing in Jota instead of Werner gives Liverpool a more varied attack, adding yet more types of goals the team can score.
Just adding a classic poacher wouldn’t be enough for this Liverpool team, though. Jota excels because he offers those qualities while also proving a modern nimble winger. He makes almost exactly the same number of pressures per 90 as Firmino and far more than Salah or Mané. He provides chances for others as well, looking unlucky with his meagre one assist from an expected total of 3.2. He’ll never be one for artistry, but we’re talking about one of the most purely effective attackers in the Premier League right now.
Jota was signed right after the 2020 league title win as the start of a gradual turnover. The side had barely been refreshed over a two-season period and he, along with Thiago Alcântara, were brought in to both add depth and offer different options. Thiago was signed for right now, but Jota, now age 25, should be an important player for years to come. With the existing front three all at ages 29-30, it’s obvious that some turnover is coming. Even if Salah stays and signs a new contract, you can expect him to gradually do a little bit less as others try to pick up the slack.
The “next” Liverpool side probably builds itself around Alexander-Arnold as much as anyone, with Harvey Elliott hopefully making a full recovery to keep improving and Curtis Jones stepping up for a lot of nice creativity there. If so, Jota is the key attacker to start from. He’s not a Salah, a Mané or a Firmino, so those skills will need to be provided elsewhere. But he’s someone who should be expected to play every week from now for a long time to come. Jota was brought in as Liverpool’s fourth choice rotation attacker. This year, he’s clearly jumped to number two on merit. He’s going to be a very important piece for the second half of Klopp’s Anfield tenure.