Diogo Jota has not been making headlines recently because, like most people, he has been observing the British government’s lockdown. But in the simpler time before football and society were placed into suspended animation, Jota looked to be building towards something sensational.
His devastating bursts from the left side of Wolves’ attacks brought six goals in five matches before the hiatus, taking his tally to the season to 15 goals. Wolves were well placed in both the Premier League and the Europa League. Then the whole world pressed pause and none of that was important.
Jota has no complaints, he understands. As he and everyone else wait for the pandemic to subside, the 23-year-old agreed to reflect on his career and the season so far. What harm can that do? He talked about his and Wolves’ improvement, as well as Liverpool’s title credentials and the unique impact made by his Portuguese compatriot Bruno Fernandes at Manchester United.
First, though, he said how strange it is to be so far from his family in Portugal at a time of crisis while acknowledging that he has a lot to be thankful for, nonetheless. “If I was in Portugal it might be even more difficult to manage, as I would be closer to them and the temptation to have social contacts would be greater,” he said.
“Being here, that is harder, and [staying indoors] is what we must do. I obviously hope my family does not receive bad news and I try to pass on to them all the messages that I get from the club: to avoid leaving home unless it is extremely necessary. The goal is for us all to be together again once this situation ends.”
Wolves were the first top-flight club to close their stadium following the suspension of the league, with their chairman, Jeff Shi, saying his ties to China made him “acutely aware” of the dangers of the coronavirus and immediately pledging to ensure all staff continue to be paid throughout this “period of uncertainty”. The company that owns the club, Fosun, donated 2,300 coverall and face masks to local hospitals.
The players, meanwhile, have been benefiting from an enviable level of care. “The club have helped us in everything,” said Jota. “The club managed to find a basket with all kinds of food, so we don’t have to go shopping. And in the medical area, we were given a kit with everything we need. I’m talking about masks, hand sanitiser and everything. The club does everything in their power so that we don’t miss anything.”
As for keeping fit before the notional resumption of the season, “the coaching staff drew up a plan for this first stage, which is said to last until the end of April but from the looks of it, it will last beyond that”, Jota told the Portuguese newspaper Record. “We have an individual work plan, with the idea of being as close to our best shape as possible.”
For Jota, football is a passion that never stops. So during his confinement, he has been playing a virtual version of it. “I happen to be training Telford United on Football Manager,” he said. “I’m already in 2029.” Being a playtime coach makes him appreciate all the more the work that Nuno Espírito Santo and Wolves’ backroom have done in real life to lift the club to where they are now from the Championship, which is where they were when Jota joined from Atlético Madrid in 2017, initially on loan.
“Detaching myself from it, you understand more clearly why this and that happened the way it did,” he said. “There is clearly influence from the coaching staff. From the physical part, where Antonio [Dias] helps us a lot. Then we have a mental coach, Julio [Figueroa], who helps us a lot too. We know that for every problem we face, we will always have someone related to that specific area who can help us.
“For example, if we look at last season compared to this one, we see that we have been changing the tactical system a few times, adapting to the opposing teams, taking away from them any chance of breaking our system. And with these systems enhancing our qualities, we players have to adapt and help the team as well as possible.”
Jota also admires work done at other clubs. He would have no quibble with Liverpool being crowned champions if this season were to be cancelled. “If we were to have the misfortune of not being able to end the season, I think that few people would oppose this. Of course, there are always rival clubs that could be against that but I think 95% of people would agree. For me they would be fair champions.”
Which is not to say that Liverpool are his favourite Merseyside club. When he was growing up in Portugal, the English team he most enjoyed watching wore blue. “I loved to watch Everton play, especially when they were playing at home,” said Jota. “It was not a club that fought for the title but that always made life very complicated for the big teams. And I loved that drive and competitiveness. They were relentless.”
Attitude is a quality Jota cherishes as much as skill. He reckons Fernandes, for instance, has uplifted Manchester United by inspiring the club’s other players to raise their standards. “I don’t know if he is the best [player at United] but he’s the most ambitious. And that makes a difference.
“You can clearly see the difference between United with and without Bruno Fernandes. He takes on the responsibility and aspires for more than what they are doing. I think they owe him a lot already. And that is not only related to his quality, but also to his ambition and personality.”