Throughout Jürgen Klopp’s brief spell on Merseyside so far, fans of Liverpool Football Club have been treated to some thrilling football. From the sensational, last-gasp 5-4 win vs Norwich in his first season to Liverpool’s commanding 5-1 win against Brighton last weekend, Klopp’s heavy-metal football has been a breath of fresh air for the Anfield outfit and the German has certainly got fans believing once again. Although the Reds performances have consistently been marred by defensive incapabilities, Liverpool’s forward line is as good as any teams in the world when on top form.
The electrifying pace of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané accompanied with the trickery and craft of star man Philippe Coutinho form a mouth-watering partnership, and just fifteen games into the new Premier League season this dynamic trio have already left opposition defenders for dead on multiple occasions. Whilst all the plaudits and statistics point to Coutinho, Salah and Mané being the main basis for Liverpool’s scintillating attacking play, it is Roberto Firmino that is arguably the most pivotal player in the current Liverpool side.
Firmino joined the club in the summer of 2015 after a four year spell in Germany with Hoffenheim and initially struggled to adapt to the demands of English football and the managerial methods of Brendan Rodgers. However, with the arrival of the enigmatic and ever-lively Jürgen Klopp to the helm, Liverpool fans began to see flashes of why Fenway Sports Group forked out a moderate £29 million fee for the Brazil international the previous summer. Firmino having originally struggled to thrive in his natural midfield position under Rodgers and Daniel Sturridge continuing to suffer the same type of injury problems that have hampered his career over the last few years, Klopp saw Firmino as the perfect focal point to spearhead his attack.
It was a decision that shocked Liverpool fans, but any doubters were soon silenced as Firmino went on to play a crucial role in helping the five-time European Champions to smash that season’s title favourites Manchester City 4-1 at the Etihad Stadium. That game was the perfect epitomy of Firmino’s career at Liverpool so far as, despite arguably turning in a man of the match display, it was his compatriot Coutinho who received all the plaudits from the fans and media. Whilst Liverpool’s main front three continue to rack up the match-winning goals, it is time to look at what makes Roberto Firmino the perfect ‘Jürgen Klopp player’ and how he continues to be the vital cog that keeps Liverpool firing on all cylinders.
Goal Productivity and Link-Up Play
Any striker in modern football is primarily judged on their goalscoring return and that is why the likes of Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, Romelu Lukaku, Alvaro Morata, and Alexandre Lacazette are ranked right at the top of the discussion when it comes to ranking the best striker in the Premier League. The only striker from last seasons top six that is often not included in that debate is Roberto Firmino and that is predominantly due to his lack of goalscoring exploits over the last couple of seasons. Firmino has only mustered a meagre 22 goals in 5051 minutes of football at Liverpool, which is far inferior to the numbers that his fellow rivals possess. To put Firmino’s lack of goals into context, across the last two full seasons Sergio Aguero has accumulated 44 goals in 4782 minutes of football.
There are a number of reasons for this, but arguably the major difference in goals between the Brazilian and the likes of Aguero is the average position that Firmino takes up over the course of a match. Although he lines up on paper as an out-and-out striker, Firmino is tasked with executing the role of a ‘false nine’ by Klopp. This ultimately means that the Maceió born player has double the responsibility of a conventional striker, as Firmino has the job of trying to create for the likes of Mané and Salah as well as trying to get on the end of chances himself and thus his overall goalscoring figures take a substantial hit.
As shown by Firmino’s average position in Liverpool’s recent 3-0 win vs Southampton, Firmino will often take up the area situated between the midfield and the attack, playing almost like an advanced midfielder. The gap that Firmino vacates in the middle is filled by whoever is playing on the two wings, normally Mané and Salah, who will dart infield and look to penetrate the defense with their blistering pace. This allows Liverpool to alternate their formation depending on the situation as when they are without the ball they’ll operate with the conventional player roles of a 4-3-3 formation, but when they are looking to destroy teams on the break it becomes more of a narrow 4-4-2 formation with Mane and Salah as the two on-running strikers, and the full-backs providing width. The benefits of Firmino dropping deep is also a benefit even when he isn’t directly involved in the attacking move as he forces defenders to drop deep with him, which allows the two African wingers to run into the space in behind that has been created by Firmino. It’s an effective method that has allowed Liverpool’s front-line to flourish and score goals in abundance, as since the 4-1 Wembley crumbling to Tottenham Hotspur Liverpool have scored three or more goals in eight of their last nine games.
However, the teams collective gain is Firmino’s own personal pain as this system means his overall goalscoring figures take a substantial hit compared to his striker rivals, whose main priority is to score. Liverpool’s fellow top six rivals all possess multiple creative midfield players that are capable of creating chances galore for their striker. In comparison, the Reds’ only real creative outlet is Philippe Coutinho, and this can be seen by how on average this season the former Inter Milan player has played 2.9 key passes per game which is considerably higher than Liverpool’s next best midfielder for that statistic, Jordan Henderson (1.2). Therefore, it is essential that Firmino (1.8 key passes on average per game this season) takes away some of the responsibility from his teammate, especially when Coutinho is missing from the starting eleven. Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola has the luxury of fielding the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in the midfield simultaneously and these two have notched up on average this season 2.4 and 3.1 key passes respectively. This combined creative threat that has propelled City into a commanding position at the top of the Premier League table allows Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus to remain in and around the box and the two are rarely forced to drop deep and get involved with the build-up play, with Aguero (22.5) and Jesus (23.1) making fewer passes on average per game so far this season than Firmino (30.2).
If there was to be one frustration that Liverpool fans have with Firmino it would definitely be his unselfishness in front of goal. Whilst at times it can be one of his immense strengths it can also turn out to be his biggest downfall on other occasions. Even though the Brazilian has a reported lucrative £45,000 goal bonus etched into his contract, if Firmino finds himself through on goal he will often look to find a teammate for a comfortable finish and on some occasions this selfless play has cost Liverpool a goal, and in the future it could potentially cost the Reds three points. Whether this be down to a lack of confidence in his own finishing abilities or not, so far this season Firmino has taken fewer shots on average per game (2.3) than any other striker from last season’s top six clubs. In addition, his shot accuracy is also lower than his rivals and his finishing has been suspect on multiple occasions.
Despite this, Firmino has so far this season gone relatively under the radar and in 21 appearances has already scored 12 and assisted 6 in all competitions; which is surprisingly more than Romelu Lukaku, Alvaro Morata, Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and Alexandre Lacazette.
One side of any player’s game that seemingly goes unnoticed in world football is workrate, and that is one of the key reasons why the Kop admires and applauds Roberto Firmino every game. Klopp’s game plan revolves around high-pressure on the opposition when not in possession, known as gegenpressing, and this culminated in Liverpool covering more distance than any other team in the Premier League last season with 4311km covered over 38 games. This level of pressing requires everyone to be committed to the cause starting from the front and there is no one more suited to the role than Firmino.
Whilst Sturridge can be blamed for his lethargic behaviour off the ball, no such blame can be associated with Firmino. When the 5ft 11in forward is starting in his usual false nine position up front, opposition defenders already know they will be in for a tough game, as Firmino never gives them a moment’s rest on the ball and continues to chase them down right up until the very last seconds of the game. Such are the hard yards he puts in, Firmino covered over 230 miles last season and that figure ranks him at number six of all Premier League players from last season, and far above any other striker in England.
This type of energy is what undoubtedly makes Firmino one of the first names on Jürgen Klopp’s teamsheet, and it is without doubt another factor that enables Liverpool’s other heavily skilled attackers to shine.
Those who only see Roberto Firmino’s overall goalscoring record during his time at Liverpool will argue that Klopp needs to invest in a long-term solution for the striker position with the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Timo Werner previously having been linked with the club. However, those who have watched the Brazil international play will appreciate just how good of an all-round attacker he is and how valuable he is to the Reds. The likes of Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah will no doubt continue to deliver the goods as Klopp looks to bring some silverware back to Anfield, but it should also be remembered that without Firmino, their brilliance would not be possible.
Written by Taylor Powling (@TaylorSport)