IT IS a question that many were asking themselves as recently as the New Year.
Admittedly, it’s rather a misleading headline as Bobby Firmino was always for me, as this previous TAW article will confirm.
The loudest noise of this season was not the roar of the Anfield crowd on Thursday night, nor was it the cries of foul play from Palace fans the other week, or even Jose Mourinho shouting “wolf!” in the weeks leading up to his dismissal. No, it was in fact the decibel raising sigh of relief emanating from me when Firmino bent in his second goal against Arsenal back in January.
Up until that point I was being made to look rather foolish in my gushing appraisal of the Brazilian. The Man City demolition and his showing against Bournemouth in the Capital One Cup aside, Firmino had flattered to deceive in his early months at the club, and many were questioning whether, like someone who buys Viagra off the internet that turns out to just be blue M&Ms, Liverpool had themselves yet another expensive flop.
Liverpool were struggling badly to score goals and Firmino was fast becoming the poster-boy for a Reds team that were quite good at nearly scoring, but rubbish at actually scoring.
While not being brought in as a striker, Firmino was signed with goals in mind. His stats in Germany were bordering on ridiculous for an attacking midfielder, scoring 32 goals and getting 27 assists in his last two seasons for Hoffenheim. He would surely guarantee goals for the Reds, wouldn’t he?
Well no, not initially. His goal against City, which really was just a tap in after Emre Can and Phil Coutinho had done all the hard work, was the only one he managed in his first 24 games for the club. He’d shown flashes of what he could do but having struggled to break into the team with regularity under Brendan Rodgers, he was finally getting a consistent run of games under Jürgen Klopp and eventually, it paid off.
He’d fired some warning shots, quite literally, in the game at Sunderland. While not managing to score he did hit a couple of crackers that were very unfortunate not to go in, and for the first time it appeared that he was going to force the issue and play himself into form.
Then a few games later came the Arsenal clash, a night where Firmino emerged from his Premier League cocoon as a Brazilian butterfly. He took his first well, but it was something about that second goal that made you believe that it may have finally clicked for him.
It was akin to December 2005 when Peter Crouch finally got that elusive first goal against Wigan. A bit of a ‘messy one but they all count’ kind of goal, only to minutes later score an absolute beauty with the confidence of a 30-goal a season man. Crouchy’s Liverpool career finally got going that day, and Firmino seemed to have a similar epiphany.
His second was curled in with all the confidence of a man who had felt the weight of the world lift off his shoulders moments earlier, and since then he has been like a man possessed.
His strike against Manchester United was his eighth in his last 13 games, and he’s now scored goals in his last three outings. His overall figures now stand at nine goals and nine assists.
However, it’s not just the numbers he’s racking up. It’s the clear swagger with which he is now playing. Most of you will have seen the ‘Pongolle’ turn he put in on Blind and Rojo the other night, sending them both for The Echo, The Mirror, The Guardian, a copy of Viz and a packet of pork scratchings, but that was merely the cherry on top of a cake filled with flicks and tricks.
There was also this attempt to make Marcos Rojo and his inexplicably tattooed legs give up on football altogether to become a lighthouse keeper, spending the rest of his days looking out to sea in search of a ball last seen at Firmino’s feet.
Firmino leaving Marcus Rojo wondering what day it is pic.twitter.com/yWa3lBseQs
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) March 13, 2016
Is this Firmino adjusting to the Premier League, or is it Klopp figuring out how to get the best out of a player he was very familiar with after coming up against him on several occasions during his time in Germany?
The Brazilian recently spoke to the official club magazine and said regarding Klopp: “Hoffenheim were a small club, so playing against the manager’s Dortmund team was hard because they were good at keeping possession and also good at counter-attacking.
“But I have scored against them and we won, so the manager had seen me before.”
He added “[He’s] the best manager I’ve worked with. I don’t say that because he picks me all of the time. It’s because of his mentality and personality. He gives confidence to all of the players. He knows what your potential is, so he always says just one or two words to give you confidence and show trust.
“That’s important for players. I think everybody likes working with him and we are all improving because of him.”
Firmino appears to be playing with the new-found confidence of a man who has realised that there is a distinct lack of quality in the Premier League, and while not exactly turning into a flat-track bully, he is finishing with the ease and assurance of someone who has recognised that the aim of the game is essentially the same as it was in the Bundesliga. Pop the round thing in the square thing, then run off to raise your arms towards the loud people next to the pitch.
There has been interesting chat stemming from Neil Atkinson since Thursday that rather than a new Luis Suarez or Luis Garcia, Firmino may be more like Liverpool’s own version of Thomas Müller, the best player in the world who doesn’t have an assigned position on the football pitch. He’s just a Thomas Müller.
Müller has made a career out of being a Thomas Müller-type, one who plays in attack, not really up front, not really in midfield, just sort of… there. Perpetually there. Always Thomas Müller-ing his way to goal.
There has been much discussion about Firmino’s best position, having been deployed mostly as an attacking midfielder, but on several occasions as a striker, or a ‘false nine’ if you want to get hipster about it.
However, he has had an air of the ‘Müllers’ recently, ghosting into positions and finding himself in ideal situations to score, then placing the ball into the net with the ice-coolness of an Inuit scoffing down a dozen rocket lollies while sat on an air conditioner. Müller-ing the opposition into submission.
This is not to say that Firmino can’t still play better than he is. In both the Capital One Cup final and on Thursday there were moments of frustration where he failed to complete a relatively simply pass, and it seemed to be a case of trying too hard to think what his move after the next one was going to be, and forgetting the importance of making the first ball that would lead to the one after the next.
A bit like when a snooker player is trying so hard to position the white for the next shot that he forgets to pot the ball. He needs to stay in the moment a little more, but he’s still doing pretty well.
After his recent form, Firmino has jumped up to fourth place in the Premier League for minutes per goal or assist, behind only Sergio Agüero, Mesut Özil and Riyad Mahrez, and ahead of the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Dimitri Payet and Jamie Vardy. He’s also been receiving praise from teammates and legends of the game.
Jordan Henderson had the following to say about him in this month’s edition of the official club magazine: “Being completely honest, I had seen very little of him before he arrived here from the Bundesliga last year.
“Naturally, he needed some time to settle in but he’s been brilliant for us, especially over the last few months. He’s a very, very good player with a lot of skill who also works extremely hard for the team. He’s provided goals and I think he’s much more robust than people realise, he’s quite wiry.
“Now it’s about him continuing to grow and get even better.”
Arsenal legend and Kop admirer Thierry Henry has also added his kudos to Firmino’s recent performances that have seen him win the PFA Fans’ Player of the Month award for January and earn a call up to the Brazil squad for the upcoming international break.
Henry told Sky Sports: “I will give him the benefit of the doubt because he has just arrived and he needs to settle. Things changed during the season and it isn’t always easy. He is starting to show some signs that he can be that guy.
“Is he Suarez? At the moment he isn’t Suarez. But he might be in the future.”
Henry is right. He isn’t Suarez, and to be honest he may never be. I’d be shocked if anyone else reached those levels at Anfield in the next couple of decades.
However, he is Roberto Firmino, and he is fast becoming the most successful flop since Dick Fosbury flung himself over the high-jump bar in Mexico City. Incidentally, I’m sure glad that they named that move after his surname and not his first name.
Some have argued that Firmino’s overall performances could still do with a little work, especially in terms of how much he influences a game, and perhaps they have a point. But at the moment he is scoring and setting up goals, and that’s rather an important part of football, so he’ll do for me… now.