If I asked you to name the best players in the world when it comes to winning aerial duels, you’d immediately conjure up the world’s greatest eight foot tall behemoths, who are so Herculean that if they headed a brick wall, the brick wall would FALL OVER. But when it comes to the beautiful game of football, that common belief isn’t always the case. Sometimes the mightiest aerial threats, happen to be smaller, nimble little masters of timing. 5’10 power forward Diogo Jota is one such stallion, who seems to score with every single leap in the air. The Portuguese forward has scored 5 headed goals at Liverpool this season, and 5 for Portugal in World Cup Qualification. Very few forwards on the planet can claim a better record this season, raising the question – how does a 5’10 false-nine-left-wing hybrid score so many headed goals? Here is our analysis of how Diogo Jota pulls off the extraordinary time and time again.
THIS IS WEIRD…Embed from Getty Images
Let’s be honest here. 5’10 is not small by any means. But it is significantly smaller than the kind of height you’d expect from a man who has scored 100% of his goals from headers in World Cup Qualifying…from a national team that has one of the greatest aerial threats of all time in Cristiano Ronaldo.
Jota has made himself a regular poacher in the box with his sharp timing of movement, supersonic timing of leaps, and accuracy when it comes to finishing off chances and heading the ball into the back of the net. He thrives off crosses from Liverpool’s high-flying full-backs – Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, and makes himself ridiculously hard to track. No other player can compete with the four headed goals he’s scored for Liverpool this season in the Premier League. For your reference, that’s the same as towering 6’4 Inter Milan target man Edin Dzeko, and one less than 6’1 goal-scoring legend Robert Lewandowski in the Bundesliga.Embed from Getty Images
Despite this aerial dominance in the penalty area, when you compare Jota’s aerial percentage to traditional target men, the 5’10 forward performs significantly worse. The Portuguese striker’s aerial duel win rate sits at a measly 27.8%. But despite that, Jota continues to score goals in the air. In fact, he scores significantly more in that regard than absolute beasts that you might normally associate with headed goals, particularly strikers going up against the exact same defenders in the Premier League.
When it comes to testing strength in the air, aerial duel percentage is one of the most reliable sources. While aerial duel percentage can also be based on the quality of passes into a player’s path or the quality of opposing defenders, it is generally a testament to a player’s own ability as a footballer. When studying aerial duel percentage, forwards like Erling Haaland, Edin Dzeko and Romelu Lukaku are some of the top performers. The amount of headed goals they’ve scored this season correlates well, and their strength in the air clearly helps them to score headed goals.
Jota, on the other end of the spectrum, vastly outperforms his aerial duel percentage. It’s almost like an xG debate. His numbers suggest that he should rarely ever score a headed goal, yet he continues to do so with regularity. Comparing him to other Premier League centre-forwards, he crushes the likes of Kane, Jimenez, Lukaku, Ronaldo, Toney and Calvert-Lewin when it comes to headed goals. This suggests that something else is at play here. But what?
THE IMPACT OF HIS FALSE NINE ROLEEmbed from Getty Images
As we’ve illustrated several times across the season, Diogo Jota plays primarily as a ‘false nine‘ for Liverpool, in a similar to manner to his predecessor Roberto Firmino. This means that Jota can float away from defenders, and then ghost into the box late. As a result, a defender’s job – such as to simultaneously hold line height and follow their man, becomes increasingly complex. As soon as the Portuguese forward sees an opportunity to spring into the box and get on the end of a cross, he perfectly positions himself in between defenders, ghosts into the penalty area and then times his jump to perfection.
As other forwards may stretch the opposition line back, ruffle the feathers of the defender by getting touch-tight, and wait for crosses and long-passes to come their way, Jota starts deeper on the field and ghosts his way into dangerous positions.
In examples like his headed goal against Watford (pictured above), not only is Jota wonderfully arriving late to the party, he’s also positioning himself in a way that is incredibly inconvenient for the opposition (between defenders). In doing so, he causes a diffusion of responsibility between the centre-back and right-back in their joint quest to track his movement. Before they can communicate and solve the problem, Jota’s already racing in, and the ball’s already in the back of the net. Meanwhile, a player like Romelu Lukaku or Edin Dzeko might be man-marked by a single defender the entire time, making it easier for the defender to ultimately win that 1v1 battle when it comes time.
So although it seems counter-intuitive, Jota’s role as a false nine massively benefits his ability to get into dangerous positions and poach penalty box crosses into goals. Defenders never quite know where he’s going to pop up, and that, more than aerial ability, is one of his greatest aerial assets.
THE STRENGHTS OF BEING SHORTEmbed from Getty Images
Being 5’10, Diogo Jota is not necessarily “short”, but he’s certainly not one that you’d pick out of a lineup of brawny forwards, when asked to choose which one you think would score the most headed goals. Being underestimated for his size and strength has to be one of his greatest advantages, as he simply doesn’t have the look and feel of a Romelu Lukaku or Edin Dzeko, and can ghost away from defenders as a result. But being 5’10 also gives Jota a few physical advantages worth noting. His lightweight, skinnier frame helps to give him a spring in his boots to leap high and get on the end of crosses. But even without his exceptional leap, he’s tall enough to score headed goals with regularity. That’s where his nimble footwork and quick steps across the grass amplify his ability. By being shorter, Jota can naturally glide across the grass a millisecond quicker, which is a crucial advantage in an everchanging game. His physical assets then allow the 25-year-old to wait on the blindside of a defender, and then pounce at the crucial moment to suddenly bang the ball into the back of the net.
It then becomes easy for a situation that seemingly seems covered, like this example against Burnley…
To, in the blink of an eye, turn into a deadly situation that Jota absolutely thrives off of…
Again, this shows an incredible ability from Diogo Jota to recognize how and when to move into space to score goals. He wins headers simply from making them into uncontested duels, where the defender or goalkeeper in question can’t react quickly enough. His movement is just that much more precise, and that, more than aerial prowess, allows him to score so many headed goals.Embed from Getty Images
So even though it might be a myth that Diogo Jota is exceptionally strong in the air, it is certainly true that Jota’s movement is so precise, that he creates room for himself to be exceptional in the air when it matters most. A combination of his pinpoint timing of the run, colossal and perfect timing of the leap, and his nimble footwork along the grass, each allow the Portuguese forward to possess the exact traits that all penalty box poaches should have in their locker. His role as a false nine in Liverpool’s system also plays a massive part, as it allows him to arrive late to the party and ghost into positions without the opposition being able to track his energetic movement every step of the way. With all of this working in tandem, Diogo Jota has scored 5 headed goals this season between Premier League & Champions League matches for Liverpool and 5 for Portugal, one of the best records in world football.
So there it is! How Diogo Jota scores so many headed goals. Be sure to check out more on Liverpool, the Premier League, and all of our Player Analyses. Also be sure to follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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