The Liverpool juggernaut rolls on. It has been a Premier League season that has been characterised by the slip-ups of every team. Manchester United and Tottenham just cannot seem to win lately, while even Manchester City have suffered shock defeats – two of them already. But, one thing has remained a constant – Liverpool winning at the end of the week.
The Reds have managed to grind their way to a perfect start to their campaign, building up a daunting eight-point lead atop the Premier League table. Now, make no mistake, even Liverpool have had their fair share of underperformers so far.
Virgil van Dijk has not quite been at his domineering best on a regular basis; Mohamed Salah has gone through a bit of a lull, while Andrew Robertson is only just starting to find his feet after a slow start to the season. But, one man has consistently delivered in typical fashion, especially when Liverpool have been bereft of ideas against stubborn opposition.
Roberto Firmino is the player who is making it all tick for Liverpool whilst also being a prolific customer in the final third. And, The Hard Tackle takes a look at how he has transformed over the course of his Liverpool stint, just four years after initially making his way to Anfield.
Firmino arrived at Liverpool a largely unknown quantity in England, albeit someone who had made quite a name for himself in the Bundesliga. Having joined Hoffenheim in January 2011, the Brazilian made steady progress and was even named as the 2013-14 Breakthrough of the Season after scoring 16 league goals – the fourth highest in the division that term.
So, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Firmino could go some way in filling the void of Luis Suarez, whose departure the previous summer had left Liverpool reeling. But, life as a Liverpool player was off to a slow start as Brendan Rodgers, who was running on his last legs as the Reds’ manager, shunted him out on the right flank.
While Firmino had reprised the role previously for Hoffenheim, he had hardly been effective enough when played out wide. Instead, he was at his deadly best when used centrally, where Rodgers refused to deploy him, preferring Christian Benteke as the striker.
Sure enough, Firmino did not score a goal or provide an assist under the tutelage of Rodgers, who was shown the exit door after a miserable start to the 2015-16 season. Soon after, Jurgen Klopp arrived at Anfield and things would never be the same again for Firmino.
The Klopp Effect
Klopp instantly recognised that Firmino was much more influential when used either as an attacking midfielder or as a striker. Indeed, the Brazilian forward was deployed as a winger in just two games for the rest of the season and the result was there for everyone to see.
Firmino finished his first season with Liverpool as their top scorer in the Premier League with 10 goals to his name. In 49 appearances across all competitions, he had a promising return of 11 goals and as many assists. And, his tally would only improve as the seasons went on.
By the start of the 2016-17 season, Firmino was the first-choice striker for Liverpool, as Klopp made him the focal point of the attack. Even on the odd occasion when he started out wide, Firmino would often drift into central areas, where he would look one of the Merseyside club’s most dangerous players.
But, it wasn’t until the 2017-18 season when Firmino finally found his calling, transforming himself into the engine of the team and forging a formidable attacking triumvirate with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. By the end of the season, he had a stupendous record of 27 goals and 17 assists in 54 appearances, and there was no looking back.
A Players’ Player
When a player is as altruistic and selfless as Firmino, one can be sure that he has endeared himself not just to the fans, but also to those who work with him week in week out. Jurgen Klopp has already called him “unbelievably valuable”, a player without whom Liverpool would be “lost”. But, a look at what his teammates say about him, and one can see just how treasured he is.
Virgil van Dijk has gone so far as claiming that Firmino is the greatest player he has played with. Andrew Robertson once exclaimed that Firmino can “do it all”, while full-back partner Trent Alexander-Arnold has called the Brazilian “priceless”. Compatriot Fabinho has even labelled him as the “perfect player for Liverpool”.
So, how exactly has the 28-year-old become one of the most influential and loved players for Liverpool?
The Quintessential False Nine: Completing Liverpool’s System
False Nine is a position that has become increasingly popular over the last decade or so, thanks in large part to the exploits of Francesco Totti, Alexis Sanchez, Lionel Messi and a few others. But, Firmino seems to be in a league of his own when reprising the role, a role that has been tailor-made to bring the best out of not just Firmino but also his teammates.
Firmino’s essaying of the False Nine is complete with the usual characteristics of dropping deep to link midfield with attack, become a chance creator and open up pockets of spaces whilst still being a goalscorer. But, he has added his own elements into his capacity as the False Nine.
The Samba flair is there for everyone to see with his strikingly unique flicks and tricks; not to mention the no-look goals and passes that he just loves to execute. Beneath the surface of all the beautiful work on the ball, Firmino has also made a name for himself for being an industrious presence in the final third.
His tireless work ethic, an attribute picked up during his time in Germany, makes Firmino the first defender for Liverpool, a player who will relentlessly run, albeit with a purpose, to win the ball back quickly. The engine of the side, Firmino also has a defence-splitting pass in him, while his movement often leaves the defenders scratching their heads.
This brilliant orchestration outside the opposition box is how he opens up spaces that allows the goal-hungry duo of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah to overload the advanced central areas and add to their goal tallies. And in doing so, Mane and Salah also leave the space wide open on either flank for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson to do what they do best – be Liverpool’s chief creative forces.
His entire bag of tricks was on full display in the comeback win over Newcastle United last month, a game that he had not started. Newcastle had taken a shock early lead, but once Firmino came on towards the latter stages of the first half, the Magpies were doomed.
Literally moments after being introduced, Firmino pressed Christian Atsu into a mistake, winning the ball from the winger before slicing the Newcastle defence open with one pass. A grateful Mane gave Liverpool the lead. Later on in the game, after Firmino had already left the visitors gasping, he set Salah up with an extraordinary backheel flick. The comeback had been completed.
But, just because his unselfish outlook allows Mane and Salah to hog much of the limelight does not mean Firmino does not have goals in him. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the Brazilian has scored 46 goals for Liverpool, a staggering 67 percent of the goals he has scored for the Reds, in half the time he has spent at the club.
The clever movement, the intelligence seen in his spatial awareness, the vision to split open a defence complete with his unmistakable goalscoring ability. Firmino might not be among the most prolific strikers in the world. But, he certainly is one of the most complete and well-rounded forwards in the game.
Firmino is a player who quite simply is the system for Liverpool, a player who gives their attack the direction it needs, someone who goes a long way in making Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane the fearsome forces they are. Without him, Liverpool indeed look lost, and he will be the player who will need to be put in bubble wrap for the Reds to win their first-ever Premier League title.