Diogo Jota has been backed to become a big hit at Liverpool following his £45 million (€49m/$58m) move to Anfield.
Former Wolves sporting director Kevin Thelwell believes the Portuguese international can prove to be the perfect addition to Jurgen Klopp’s squad , and says the 23-year-old will provide ideal competition to the Premier League champions’ established front three.
Thelwell was the man who negotiated the deal to take Jota to Molineux from Atletico Madrid in 2017.
Wolves were in the Championship at the time, but secured the versatile forward on a season-long loan deal, making the move permanent for around £13m (€14m/$16.6m) after Jota’s 17 league goals had helped fire them to promotion.
“He was only 20,” Thelwell tells Goal . "We were on pre-season in Austria when the call came that there would be an opportunity to take him.
"Myself and the chairman, Jez Moxey, flew to Spain, met the Atletico president for dinner, and we had thrashed out a deal with Atletico in the space of 24 hours.
“In my opinion, we were signing Premier League players in a Championship environment. But to get Diogo on a try-before-you-buy kind of deal was just perfect.
"It was one of the best pieces of business we did.”
Jota scored 18 goals in all competitions in his first season in the Black Country, and has followed that up with 10 and then 16 across the last two campaigns.
“In terms of how we wanted to play at Wolves, either a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2, he was a perfect fit because he can play wide or he can play central,” says Thelwell, who is now the head of sport at MLS club New York Red Bulls.
“He can play off the front as a second striker, or he can play wide in a narrow three. You want players to be multi-functional, so that made him interesting for us.
“We were playing in the Championship, of course, so we needed someone who was aggressive, dynamic and competitive. He is all of those things.
“I used to say to him ‘Diogo, you’re British!’ That’s what he’s like in terms of his outlook and the way he behaves on the pitch. He’s got that bouncebackability. He can run into a brick wall but he’ll bounce straight back up, no problem. He shakes it off.
“Some players find it difficult to deal with the brutality of English football, especially in the Championship, but he was fine. And on top of all that, he has a nose for assists and goals.
"From our perspective, it always felt like he would make a difference. When you perform as he did in the Champ, it’s a precursor to what you could achieve in the Premier League, and he’s carried on that form since. He’s been able to produce year on year.”
Now, he will get the chance to show he can step up again.
Liverpool have spent big to land him, paying Wolves an initial £41m (€45m/$53m), but Thelwell believes his former charge will arrive on Merseyside with the right mentality to learn from, and then challenge, the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
“I think he’s ideal for Liverpool,” he says. “They play 4-3-3 and sometimes go to a 4-4-2 with two strikers. He’d be absolutely perfect for that.
“He’ll come in with exactly the right mentality. He’s ambitious, of course, and he will really try and break into that starting XI as soon as he can, but he’s also realistic, and he recognises the level and the quality that is already at Liverpool.
“His aim will be to learn and develop from that quality and develop into one of those players in due course. The great news is he’s still only 23, so he doesn’t have to deliver straight away. He can tuck in, acclimatise, get to the level and then hopefully push through.”
Liverpool, Goal understands, compiled extensive background reports on Jota before pushing through the deal this week. Pep Lijnders, the assistant manager, spoke to a number of contacts in Portugal and received glowing references on the player’s character and attitude.
Thelwell can only echo those views.
“He’s very low maintenance,” he says of Jota. “He lives, eats and drinks football. You’ll have seen in lockdown if you follow his social media, he’s either working to play football, he’s playing football and working on his skills, or he’s playing FIFA so he can learn more about football! He’s football mad.
“There were no issues at all with him. He lives his life correctly, he’s mature beyond his years in many ways.
"One of the big credits to the recruitment department at Wolves is that they’ve always had a ‘no dickheads’ policy, every player who has come in has had a fantastic attitude and he’s no different. He’s a great kid.”
He adds: “Without question, it gives you great pride to have been involved in the development of players such as Diogo. There are a lot of people who deserve credit, from the head coach to the owners to the recruitment team, there are a lot of moving parts.
“You don’t sign players with [selling them on] in mind, but he was 20 and he had the potential not only to help us right now, but to develop and improve further. He’s only 23 now, but he’s already had a pretty tight trajectory, hasn’t he?
“Coming out of the Championship, I think we thought he had someone pretty special, and the challenge then was to repeat it on the Premier League stage. He’s proven he can do that, and I’m delighted for him that he’s going to get the opportunity to do that at one of the biggest clubs in the world.
"It’s fantastic for him, and I think he’ll do really well at Liverpool.”