For 61 minutes of Liverpool’s visit to Arsenal on Saturday night, Jurgen Klopp’s men had completely controlled the direction of play. Arsenal, poor, passive and there for the taking.
And yet a lack of incision continued to hurt the Reds. Decision making, particularly in key areas, used to be something that Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah excelled at; knowing when and how to pass and to shoot.
And yet this was another example of those attributes deserting all three.
Mane, in the first half in particular, was guilty of holding onto the ball too long or, in one break, not cutting across Rob Holding and then releasing the pass at the wrong time. Indeed the match was following a similar pattern to many of Liverpool’s games this season; territorial control, but the wrong moves at the wrong times.
Step forward, Diogo Jota.
The €40m signing missed nearly three months of the season following a knee injury and it means that the pressure for positions on the dynamic front three was lessened; the big three have started nearly every match in Jota’s absence, irrespective of fitness or form. It’s made them complacent and it’s made Liverpool more predictable.
Jota hasn’t had to re-find his touch following injury; quite the opposite, in fact. He has six goals and an assist in his last five matches for club and country, overshadowing Cristiano Ronaldo on Portugal duty, and he provided an injection of energy that Klopp's side have lacked.
Just minutes after coming on, he nestled in behind Holding to meet Trent Alexander-Arnold’s perfect cross and nod into the roof of Bernd Leno’s net, and after Salah had made it two he drifted in to latch onto Mane’s touch and slam into the net for three.
It was precisely the impact the team needed. And after a period of unbridled success for Liverpool’s fabled front three, Jota is now stepping forward as the man that needs to play, and play regularly.
Jota has eight goals in the Premier League now, and his non-penalty goals P90 rate of 0.91 is the best of any player in the division (minimum 500 minutes played).
Among his Liverpool team-mates, the rate is double that even of Salah, whose 18-goal haul is propped up by six penalties.
His chance conversion of 42% is also among the leading lights of the league, superior not only to his Liverpool team-mates but also such league luminaries as Harry Kane.
Yes, the sample size is smaller (he has only played 723 PL minutes) but such is his impact when he does play that had he not been injured, we could have been looking at Liverpool’s player of the season.
And it’s not just his personal impact but the impact he has on those around him. Mane and Salah’s confidence notably increased when Jota had opened the scoring and the fact that an assist and goal followed respectively gave an insight into his role in the squad.
And with Real Madrid lying in wait in the Champions League without injured captain Sergio Ramos, the timing seems right for Jota to shake up the front trio.
Liverpool’s defensive woes have come under much scrutiny, for good reason; Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez’s virtual season-long absence as a pairing has seen them pay a heavy cost.
But Mane hasn’t scored in the league since the end of January, while his total of seven goals is way down on his last two seasons, where he managed 18 and 22 respectively.
And while Firmino’s game is about much more than scoring, he too has just a single goal in 2021. The pressure on Salah has been therefore intensified and he hasn’t been able to carry the weight himself.
Klopp will be hoping that with Jota fit and firing, he might not have to. That mid-season injury means he will be one of the fittest, most hungry players in a division full of tired legs desperately trying to make it to the end of this epic season.
Chelsea’s surprise loss to West Brom means the Reds are just two points off the Champions League spots. And with a reasonably generous run-in to come against a flurry of teams with little to play for, Jota could be the key man in ensuring a Champions League return ends this miserable season on a high.