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Celtic should sign Jota permanently

Everyone will have had a personal “ooft, this kid is gifted” moment watching Jota. There have been enough goals and assists, dainty flicks and even daintier tricks, to make a YouTube compilation of his season at Celtic as lengthy as those profiling some players’ careers.

For some, that moment might have arrived earlier than for others. The precision of his close control in bringing down a high ball in his debut against Ross County in September; the mesmeric feet and inch-perfect delivery he produced for Albian Ajeti’s opener away to Real Betis a few days later in the Europa League; his cushioned first touch and emphatically finished second in Celtic’s 2-0 win over Motherwell in October.

By the time he produced his endlessly watchable pass for Kyogo Furuhashi’s goal at home to Ferencvaros that month, there were few left unconvinced by his talent.

Celtic’s £6.5 million purchase option with Benfica increasingly felt like a bargain as autumn shivered into winter, but while images of him celebrating among fans in the stands illustrated a player loving life, the former Portugal Under-21 international staying permanently was by no means guaranteed.

After the winter break, figures at his parent club, despite being managerless since Jorge Jesus’ sacking in December, suggested he could return to a meaningful role next year and the uncertainty appeared to impact his performances. A Benfica fan, no one could begrudge him the opportunity to play regularly for his boyhood club.

Yet once incoming manager Roger Schmidt confirmed that Jota would not be part of his plans this season, that clarified the situation. It is believed Jota is now close to making his move to Celtic permanent, as first reported by Portuguese outlet A Bola. He reportedly became convinced that staying at Celtic pushes him forward, just as his initial loan in Glasgow was the platform he needed to relaunch a career that was beginning to stutter.

Jota’s baseline ability has always been immense. He was a star of Benfica’s renowned academy, reaching the final of the 2016-17 UEFA Youth League alongside Joao Felix, now of Atletico Madrid. He also earned 73 youth caps for his country between under-15 and under-21 level, winning the Under-19 European Championship in 2018 and featuring in the team of the tournament.

Yet there was initial scepticism over a player who, prior to his arrival at Celtic, had made only 40 first-team appearances by the age of 22; the red flag of a prodigy struggling to fulfil their potential and labouring to make a home anywhere.

Celtic, last year, became that home. As the months wore on, Jota grew into arguably his team’s most important attacking player despite that dip in form in early spring, especially with Furuhashi missing most of the second half of the season. The table below lists the core attacking and creative metrics of Celtic players who featured in 1000 minutes or more in 2021-22.

Season stat rankings (via Instat)

Key passes per 90xA per 90Assists per 90xG per 90Goals per 90Successful dribbles per 90

1st

O’Riley (2.6)

O’Riley (0.77)

Jota (0.39)

Giakoumakis (0.99)

Giakoumakis (0.98)

Rogic (4.2)

2nd

Rogic (2.3)

Turnbull (0.7)

Rogic (0.34)

Furuhashi (0.69)

Furuhashi (0.8)

Jota (3.7)

3rd

Jota (2)

Jota (0.68)

O’Riley (0.22)

Abada (0.44)

Maeda (0.42)

Hatate (2.1)

Notably, the only two metrics in which Jota does not finish in the top three — expected goals (xG) and goals per 90 minutes — he still placed fourth and fifth respectively, averaging 0.37 xG and 0.36 goals per 90. If you tally up his goals and assists, he produced 0.75 goal contributions every 90 minutes in 2021-22 in all competitions. Not bad for a winger who had never before played more than 1000 minutes of top-flight football in a single season.

Where it gets even more interesting is when his Europa League group-stage contributions are looked at. He was absent from December’s dead rubber against Real Betis, Celtic’s final group game, due to a hamstring injury but in the other five matches, he contributed two goals and two assists over 412 minutes of game time. Only Furuhashi, with his two goals and three assists, bettered Jota’s output, and no other player was involved in more than two contributions.

The basic stats tell one story but in a group stage that exposed the technical limitations of some of Ange Postecoglou’s players at a European level, Jota’s comfort in continental football stood in stark contrast. This was a player whose technique, close control, balance, and athleticism saw him excel on the big occasions.

In that sense, acquiring Jota on a permanent basis would be a significant signing. There were players last year who contributed to Celtic’s domestic success but struggled in the Europa League, and will realistically be uncomfortable with the step-up to the Champions League. To compete in that competition and elevate Postecoglou’s project to the next level requires strengthening in a number of key positions — and retaining players who can thrive in that environment. Jota joining permanently fulfils the latter.

Celtic are also confident that, despite the £6.5 million fee and Benfica’s 30 per cent sell-on clause, Jota would be a worthwhile investment. There is satisfaction that if he continues to develop, both his future on-pitch contributions and potential resale value will vindicate their substantial outlay on his services. It is a similar situation to the possibility of making Cameron Carter-Vickers’ stay permanent, even with eyebrows raised over spending £6 million on a player with one year left on their contract at Tottenham.

But Celtic would be good for Jota,  too. He is a firm fan favourite and inspired one of the chants of the season adapted from O-Zone’s dance-pop classic “Dragostea Din Tei”.

Champions League football is the ultimate ambition for any footballer and would test the limits of Jota’s talent, and further seasons in Glasgow would reinforce that title and trophy-chasing mentality. Then there is Postecoglou and assistant John Kennedy, whose coaching on a team and individual level Jota knows would help him improve as a player, too.

Jota played some of the best football of his season once Schmidt clarified his Benfica plans, contributing three goals in three assists in the five post-split fixtures. Having that clarity of direction would help Jota focus going into next year, while he excelled as part of an exciting front three alongside Daizen Maeda and Furuhashi, and the potential for what the trio can produce after a full pre-season together is tantalising.

This is a move that would make sense for both parties. Jota would find a home to flourish and a platform in which to develop, while Celtic retain a talent they can be confident of selling for profit in future — but more importantly purchasing a player they believe can come alive under the Champions League spotlight.

(Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

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