Near to the entrance at AXA training centre in Kirkby there is a supersized screen with Sky Sports News playing on repeat. This means on occasion Liverpool players will catch a glimpse of themselves.

Diogo Jota has plenty of times, but still finds it strange.

“I don’t like it,” he says as we sit down in a nearby interview room. “I always feel a bit weird seeing myself (on TV), even nowadays.”

All of which might have made the purpose of The Athletic’s visit to Kirkby — watching clips of Jota playing with the man himself — slightly awkward.

In the event, there was no reason for concern. Jota is happy to spend an hour looking at his best bits in a Liverpool shirt, although — true to his modest nature — he has no intention of lavishing himself with praise.

His late winner against Tottenham last season is met with a soft grin; there is a nod and smile when he watches his three-touch wonder goal against Nottingham Forest.

But for the most part, there is a low key calm to Jota. If he has an ego or a sharper edge to his personality it is nowhere to be found. He comes across in person in the same way he does in front of goal; calm and confident.

And now, he is ready to talk.

Last season, Jota was, to his knowledge, the only professional player in the world who competed in the Champions League in real life and in a video game.

The 26-year-old was one of the top registered FIFA 23 players in Europe which meant he qualified to play in the eChampions League on his PlayStation 5. He admits to a certain pride at the accomplishment and, even if seeing himself on TV is still a bizarre experience, this is his life now. He is an elite footballer whether with boots on his feet or a console controller in his hands.

In February 2021, during his debut season with Liverpool after joining from Wolves, a spell out with injury enabled him to build a 30-game unbeaten run on FIFA Ultimate Team. It was a sequence which earned him the number one ranked player on the FUT Champions leaderboard.

By this point he had already founded his own eSports team. Once named after him, Jota recently signed a deal with Galaxy Racer – a gaming organisation based in Dubai. Together they have rebranded as Luna Galaxy, the name Luna deriving from one of his three beloved Beagle dogs.

The new game — now rebranded as EA SPORTS FC — is due to be released next month and Jota is counting down the days until its release, not least because if you happen to be a footballer represented in the game, you can request a special ‘blue card’ from EA Sports, which rates you at 99 out of 100.

𝟏𝐬𝐭 𝐢𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐖 𝐎 𝐑 𝐋 𝐃 🌍@DiogoJota18

— Luna Galaxy Esports (@LunaGalaxy_gg) February 6, 2021

“You are the only person who can have it. When opponents see your starting line-up, if you have that blue card, they know it’s the real player.” Jota explains. “I normally go 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 up and some people leave the game. But when they know they are playing against me they (stay and) finish the game. Sometimes it will finish 12-0 and it’s just a bit boring for me.”

That he said, he tries to avoid scoring goals as himself by deploying his in-game character in midfield.

“If I score the player shows up on the screen so I always avoid scoring with my player,” he laughs. “If they don’t know it’s me, then they won’t find out.”

Which brings us back to the real world. For a decade of his youth across spells at Gondomar and Pacos Ferreira’s respective academies, Jota was an actual midfielder, something he feels has helped his tactical understanding and his ability to receive passes. He also believes his reading of the real-life game has been improved by the video game version, and vice versa.

Diogo Jota’s gamer celebration against Spurs (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

“I can see what’s happening and make changes (to my team), that’s why I’m hard to deal with. My eSports team players always say: ‘You do things that we are not expecting!’ It is because I have the vision of a real life football game.

“Each football game, it’s like an open book. So you just need to know how to read it. For me that makes a lot of sense. Even if it’s a video game, there’s a lot of tactical things happening. If you can read them, it always improves your reading of the game.”

That ability to analyse the game in lightning quick time is one of Jota’s hallmarks, a point underlined by the last-minute winner he scored against Tottenham last season.

“Sometimes you expect things to happen and they don’t. Fortunately for me (this time) it did,” he says watching footage of the goal, which he celebrated by sitting down and pretending to play his PS5.

“That’s the moment I think Lucas Moura can pass to the keeper,” Jota says, referring to Alisson’s long kick. “So I’m anticipating it and no one else is.

“The defender (Cristian Romero) only reacts to the ball and at that moment it’s already too late.

“Timing as an offensive player is everything. The way you can predict what’s going to happen, and if you do that and react first it’s hard to stop.

“I said after the game and I think it’s true; if that is on my right foot, it is probably not a goal!”

Jota’s modesty strikes again. He understates the power of his right foot but has scored more goals for Liverpool using it (19) compared to the 12 he has netted on his left.

“I don’t have a trademark goal,” he says leaning in as if to cross reference the numbers on screen.

“Some players, like Arjen Robben for example, everyone knew he was going from the right, cutting inside and curling it on his left into the far post and no one could really stop him. I don’t think you can see that in me. I can go both ways (on both feet).

“And in that sense I’m a bit unpredictable because I don’t have that trademark. No one really knows what I will do. So that is my way to be different and keep surprising everyone.”

The amount of headers Jota has scored (10) has certainly been a surprise. During his time at Wolves he never scored a single header in the Premier League but since his Liverpool debut in 2020, only Harry Kane has scored more headers in the league.

“At Wolves I always played through the left and we had Raul Jimenez as the main striker,” he explains. “When you are playing striker you get more opportunities to use your heading. That’s the main thing that changed. I have now played a lot as a No 9 and I think that makes the difference. And obviously at Wolves we didn’t attack as much as we do here.”

One of his eight Premier League headers for Liverpool came in a 2-0 win over Watford in April 2022 and was assisted by Joe Gomez.

“That game Joe was playing right-back and I know he’s not used to playing there. So I wanted to be an option for him. I said when you get the ball on the right side, just cross it.

“He has a good pass with the inside of his foot. And at that moment (when he gets the ball from Jordan Henderson) I’m expecting him to cross.

“Those goals that don’t happen very often, the ones where you actually speak about it before the game.”

Understanding his team-mates and what they might do next has always been important to Jota.

Take Nat Phillips’ shot against Manchester United in May 2021. Jota knew as soon as the centre-back was on the ball in the box he had to move nearer to goal.

“In those seconds I see Nat is with the ball and he’s not used to being in those areas.

“I try to read it and hope the ball comes my way and that’s why I moved there for the crossing shot.

“And then it is just a reaction because the ball comes fast and I need to find a way to send it towards the goal. And that was my way to do it. It’s a nice backheel goal.”

His finishing, along with his movement, is instinctive. And he likes to be as close to goal as possible.

Since 2019-20 (his final season at Wolves) Jota has been getting a lot closer to goal before shooting. During the 2021-22 Premier League season he was averaging 3.4 shots per 90 minutes. The average distance of those shots was 11.6 yards — two yards closer to goal than the previous two seasons.

“I don’t normally shoot from outside of the box. I feel like the closer I am, it’s more likely to be a goal. I prefer to try and penetrate the defence before I shoot. It is just the way I play.”

One opponent Jota has loved scoring against is Arsenal: in three seasons he has scored seven times against the north London club (nine games in total across all competitions).

He picks his second goal in the 2-0 Carabao Cup semi-final second leg win during the 2021-22 season as the pick of the bunch. It ensured Liverpool a place in the final after the first leg at Anfield had finished goalless.

Just as he knew the cross was coming from Gomez and the shot from Phillips in our earlier examples, Jota knows when he is on a pitch with Trent Alexander-Arnold that the ball will find a way to him: Liverpool’s new vice-captain has assisted Jota nine times, more than for any other player.

Jota often signals for the ball and not just that he wants it but where it should be played. He says as natural as it looks, forging these on-pitch partnerships can take time. He feels his understanding with Alexander-Arnold is similar to the one he shared with Ruben Neves at Wolves and Portugal.

“I try to say where I want the ball to make it easier for him. We have a good understanding and it’s beneficial for the club.

“I always try to find a passing line for my team-mates, it’s something that is with me already. And it’s about getting that relationship with whoever is passing, for him to understand that I will try to give him an option.

“And sometimes it just works out perfectly like on that occasion ,” he concludes, watching the replay of his perfectly timed lob over Aaron Ramsdale.

His first goal in that game was also assisted by Alexander-Arnold, who was positioned centrally when he made the pass.

“Playing him more inside, it gives him a lot more of the ball. If he has a lot more of the ball, we know that he will make a lot more passes than he already did playing on the outside.

“At this moment you see three players but I only see one. I think it’s Ben White. The other two are behind me already so I know they cannot have an effect.

“So I just go against Ben White at that moment and I know as well when I try to dribble inside, the keeper is also moving with me. So if I shoot to the side that he is moving from I think it’s hard for him to get to it.

While Jota loved his second strike against Arsenal which sent Liverpool to Wembley, his first choice when it comes to his best goal for the club is hard to disagree with: Nottingham Forest at Anfield in April.

Even watching it back on a small screen, it takes your breath away: Jota collects Andy Robertson’s set-piece delivery on his chest before taking another touch with his thigh and finally swerving a finish past Keylor Navas without the ball hitting the ground.

And while it is those three touches which stand out, according to Jota, it is his communication with Ibrahima Konate in the build-up which was key.

Knowing the Nottingham Forest defenders are going to be more focussed on stopping Konate and Virgil van Dijk, Jota uses this to his advantage.

After a word with Konate he uses him as a shield before peeling off to the front.

“You hope the ball ends up there. And it does,” Jota says. “In that game they were defending on a high line and they were expecting a lot of offsides but I know that normally I’m not (offside).

“So I knew that I could have time to control it. But after that you are just doing it the best way you think at that specific second.

“I tried to control it forward, but the ball stayed a little bit back and I just found a way to still have a shot.

“My first feeling is that I can control this ball. But then the ball doesn’t always go the way you want so you just need to adapt. That’s a good goal.”

Jota mentions he is never normally offside and he’s right.

Since joining Liverpool in 2020-21, he has strayed nine times in the Premier League — and just three times in total last season. For context, Mohamed Salah was caught 22 times, ahead of Darwin Nunez (17).

More often than not Jota times his runs to perfection, something which is clear when we study his goal against West Ham United in his debut Anfield campaign.

“You need to give all the credit to (Xherdan) Shaqiri,” Jota says before the clip even starts playing. “You can see when Henderson has the ball and I’m also offering a passing line.

“But he passes the ball to Shaqiri. So I just think: what can I do next?”

What Jota does is make a zippy run in behind and nobody else moves.

“But I think it’s all about Shaqiri,” he insists, turning down more praise. “If I receive it here it’s between five players.

“But because the pass is so good, I literally just need to run and when I touch the ball it is already to finish. Not everyone can see that pass.”

Jota has the vision to make the run but increasingly he also has the vision to make similar passes: last season he delivered eight assists in all competitions, more than in his first two seasons at Liverpool combined — a pleasing improvement for a player who had studied his own stats and found himself wanting in terms of creativity.

One was a line-breaking pass for Roberto Firmino to run onto in the 3-2 defeat at Arsenal in October last year.

“I’ve got a bit of Shaqiri there,” he laughs. “That’s good movement from him and a good pass.

“Normally it was Bobby who found these kinds of passes and I’m finishing them.

“But that’s the joy of football. You never know what’s going to happen. And we change roles a little bit (at Liverpool).”

This season he wants to combine his past two seasons at Liverpool – marrying his assist rate with his goals record from 2021-22, when he scored 21 – although unlike some of his team-mates such as Salah, he does not believe in targets.

“I never do that (set targets). A lot of things can happen and I don’t want to be disappointed or overthink things. A football game is so unpredictable and so many things can happen.“

Jota found that out only too starkly last season when a calf injury picked up in the final seconds of a 1-0 win over Manchester City in October shattered his hopes of playing at a first World Cup with Portugal. He spent over 100 days out in total, and it took time for his form to return.

A goal drought which had already clouded the end of his previous campaign had stretched to a year, and 33 appearances, before it finally ended with a brace against Leeds United in April.

During that time it was an old Cristiano Ronaldo quote which became a mantra of sorts. His compatriot was once quoted saying when you do start scoring again, the goals flow “like ketchup”.

He had a point: Jota scored seven times in Liverpool’s final nine Premier League games.

It is not just about goals and assists, either. When Jurgen Klopp is your manager, it is also about being a team player and Jota’s proactive nature has made him a great fit for Liverpool where out of possession players are under strict instruction to counterpress.

“I’m everywhere,” he says, impressed by a touch map from his first three seasons at Liverpool.

“It’s one of my characteristics; I always work for the team. You can see some touches inside our box,” he points. “Probably clearances!

“When I’m on the pitch, I can’t be quiet, I can’t be walking. I am always on the move trying to search for the ball, trying to be an option, covering someone or being a passing line.”

On the pitch he is busy and off it is the same. Jota’s fiancee Rute Cardoso gave birth to the couple’s second child in March. Balancing life as a father, professional athlete and gamer is not easy but Jota counts his blessings.

“It’s nice to be alive,” he says. “I just want to live my life and try to be happy.”

Additional contributor: Mark Carey

(Top photo: Jan Kruger – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)