Late into Saturday night, as the cold really started to take hold at Anfield after Liverpool brushed off another VAR decision they were bemused by to beat Sheffield United 2-1, Jurgen Klopp and his coaching staff shared a few minutes of appreciation for Diogo Jota.
“Phwoar, what a player!,” from Pep Lijnders was promptly followed by “and what a person” from the manager. The pair were not surprised that the Portugal international, who headed in the winner, had yet again showcased how his qualities superbly blend with Liverpool’s core attackers.
The process of finding the right offensive player to slot in with Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino was intensive after all. The recruitment department, powered by their leading analytics arm, worked to narrow down the most progressive candidates - strong in the dribble and in transition - at the right age, with a high ceiling, built for an aggressive, psychically demanding system and whose passes and movement would be in sync with the talent already at the club.
The target would need to have an enormous appetite to develop, while also understanding the need to be patient given the status, chemistry and contributions of Liverpool’s front three. He would need to have the right character too - with due diligence on this as extensive as the look into the data.
If that criteria was not complex enough, the financial arrangement of a transfer would need to work for Liverpool too given the impact of coronavirus on their income.
Jota, who was on the club’s one-to-watch radar for two seasons, was the answer to everything: a tireless player that had plenty of untapped potential who was positive in possession and tenacious out of it.
He needed a new challenge after a period of stasis at Wolves, who were willing to be flexible with payment terms.
So while Klopp and his assistants were not shocked that the initial outlay of £41m was spent on a very good player with the potential to become great, the ease in which the 23-year-old has slotted in during the most intense, unforgiving circumstances has been amazing.
With more recovery routines and games than training sessions to fully acclimatise to the manager’s demands, during a stanza interrupted by international duty, team-mates testing positive for Covid, Liverpool suffering injuries to key players and having the pressure of defending the title, Jota has still fitted in with no fuss.
His seven appearances - three from the start - has produced two goals as well as glimpses of all reasons the club were willing to make such a big investment in him. Jota “is quick, he has the physicality, he is strong, he is good in the air, he is good on the ground... a lot of good things,” to use Klopp’s assessment.
He also arms the German with the ability to change Liverpool’s shape and approach, which will be vital as they juggle the Champions League with the objective of retaining the title during a weird, unpredictable campaign.
This offers the chance to extract extra dimensions out of Salah and Mane in particular.
“It was not so much about getting Diogo on the pitch because he can play a lot of positions in our our usual formation,” Klopp explained on selecting all four attackers against Sheffield United in a 4-2-3-1 with Salah as the focal point.
“It was like, ‘How can we start? How can we change? How can we do all the stuff which is important in a game? How can we cause them problems?’
“Sheffield United had a big advantage obviously that they prepare a full week for our game. They can do 12 different set-pieces, to train them during the week; we have recovery sessions. So we thought with a slight change we could at least give them some problems as well, which we did actually.
“Offensively, it’s not that different. But it gives us an extra option. It brought Mo in a different position, where I have to say he played an incredible game. Mo and Sadio didn’t score but played outstanding. Sadio was in the one-on-one situations pretty much undefendable.
“Mo between the lines, sensational. Super chance. And the other two boys scored and played good as well, so that helps obviously.”
Mane had erased the influence of five defenders in the process of crossing for Jota to head in the winner at the far post on Saturday and one of the most illuminating elements of Liverpool’s positive offensive patterns - the team had been poor for a large stanza of the game following the decision to award a penalty against Fabinho - was the chemistry between the Portuguese and the front three.
In attacking and ball recovery moments, he was in tune with Mane, Salah and Firmino.
Given how taxing and lengthy the adjustment spell can ordinarily be at Anfield - see Andy Robertson, Fabinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a start - this is not to be scoffed at especially in the current climate.
"He is still adapting,” Klopp said. “In the moment, a lot of things we do are not natural to him but that’s only because Wolves play different – but a lot of things he did for Wolves are exactly what we want him to do.
“Yes, that he is that close to 100 per cent already is just a sign how good a player he is.
“As I said, if he stays fit, he’s 23 and the future is bright, let me say it like this. We will need his quality and I am really happy that he settled nicely so far.”
Liverpool have helped transform Mane and Salah, in particular, from good attackers to world-class ones that would fetch a fee well in excess of £100m.
It will be an interesting watch to witness if Jota’s advancement follows the same sort of trajectory.
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