Curtis Jones listens to Jurgen Klopp’s demand
It’s been a different type of season for Curtis Jones in Liverpool’s first team.
The midfielder placed his name firmly down on the on-call list last term as he made a dozen appearances in total with half of them coming in cup competitions.
Those 12 games provided enough of a highlight reel to hint at a glorious future.
A stunning Merseyside derby winner in January was followed up by him becoming the youngest Liverpool captain in history the following month against Shrewsbury at Anfield.
Throw in a first Premier League goal alongside a winning penalty at the Kop End in a barmy League Cup tie with Arsenal and it was enough to whet the appetite of the Liverpool faithful about another emerging superstarlet from the Kirkby Academy.
But if his debut album was critically acclaimed for its handful of hit singles, the often difficult second offering is even better because of its more polished sound.
Jones has now eschewed the spectacular sprinklings for more sustained and consistent periods of excellence at Liverpool.
Starring in a Jurgen Klopp midfield is surely one of the most difficult tasks in world football.
Combining technical prowess with an indefatigable work ethic means few can apply for a position in the three-man engine room.
Throw in the fact that Jones was asked by Klopp during an analysis meeting this week to try and become more of a goal threat and the task of shining became that little bit harder for him.
With the Reds struggling for goals, Klopp believed the city-centre-born midfielder could be an answer and detailed how he could do it during a meeting at the AXA Training Centre.
It was a challenge Jones didn’t shirk from, though, as he settled the nerves with a well-taken opening goal, meeting Klopp’s demands in the process.
He may be in the fledgling stages of what will surely be a sensational career but the England Under-21 international is now a major player in this squad.
Jones is no longer trying to impress at Liverpool. Now he is simply doing it.
Talent pool getting deeper
Liverpool’s absentee list was a who’s who of elite talent. Virgil van Dijk, Jordan Henderson, Alisson Becker, Joel Matip, Joe Gomez, Fabinho and Diogo Jota.
Hundreds of millions worth of talent left unavailable to Jurgen Klopp as he attempted to navigate his way through the most difficult period of his Anfield reign.
Of course, the Reds’ injury list, as it has been all season, is the stuff of intense debate and there is little to be added on that here.
But after getting the job done in heartening circumstances on Sunday night, there is a feeling that the cavalry – or at least some of it – is returning at an opportune time for Klopp.
After giving their flagging top-four hopes a much-needed shot in the arm at Bramall Lane, Liverpool now gear up for another fixture that could make a claim to being the biggest of the campaign so far.
Chelsea roll into town on Thursday night with the Reds aiming to arrest an Anfield slump that has placed them on a four-game losing run for the first time since 1923.
Crucially, though, the talent pool to choose from is getting deeper for Klopp.
Jota, who was sent back to Merseyside on Sunday after complaining of illness overnight in Liverpool’s hotel, is expected to return against the Londoners.
So too Fabinho, who may even be allowed to feature in his natural position in front of the back four given the solid if unspectacular contributions of Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips at centre-back.
And Alisson Becker, Klopp hinted, is also likely to be recalled having sat this one out following the tragic death of his father.
Throw in returning cameos from the promising Naby Keita and the dependable James Milner and the squad looks a lot healthier than it has in some time. Even if the club’s medical staff are still doing plenty of overtime.
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Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips steady the ship
A rare Liverpool phenomenon was spotted at Bramall Lane at around 7.15pm.
As the Reds took to the pitch to kick off proceedings against Chris Wilder’s charges, two actual centre-backs could be seen on the visiting team.
It’s been some time since Klopp has been able, or willing, to name a team with two players whose reputations have been formed as specialist central defenders.
Perhaps since Joe Gomez buckled on England duty in November in fact, with Fabinho and later Jordan Henderson entrusted to fill one of the two spots at the back these past few months.
But here were Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak, pairing up for just the second time together, continuing a burgeoning partnership that can perhaps best be described as no frills.
Both players, despite being 23 and 20, appear to have learned their lessons at the old school.
Content to win headers, keep it simple and use their physicality, both Kabak and Phillips limited the Blades to little of note for large periods of the game.
Given the home side have scored just 15 times all season, that is probably not the most impressive of Premier League feats, but baby steps are what are needed in Liverpool’s centre-back ranks right now.
Kabak’s own goal blushes were spared by an offside flag in the first half before Phillips was outfoxed by substitute Oliver Burke, but both did enough to earn a clean sheet bonus overall.
The jury will remain out on the on-loan Kabak, probably until the season’s final day has dawned and Phillips is unlikely to feature long term in this squad, but a basis to build was provided by the pairing.
They have earned the right to continue to provide that, starting with Chelsea on Thursday.