ONE thing that has been abundantly clear since the first game of the season is that this is now a Jürgen Klopp team doing what Jürgen Klopp wants it to do. The word “team” is the key part of that sentence.
Despite the initial burst of Sadio Mane magic on the Liverpool stage, it now appears there isn’t a standout go-to star, as there has been for so many years at the club. Every game seems to offer several contenders for man of the match. Most fans would give you a differing range of answers if you asked who the club’s star man was — they’d probably say it could be a few.
However, maybe Liverpool do have a star. One who isn’t appreciated as much as he should be because he isn’t exactly doing it in the conventional sense.
In 2013-14, Luis Suarez tore the league to shreds, clocking up 31 goals and 12 assists — an incredible contribution from one player. It wasn’t that others didn’t chip in — Daniel Sturridge got 21 goals and Steven Gerrard got 12 assists. But it was a star-man performance.
That isn’t what the team’s current star man, Roberto Firmino, does. He isn’t your typical star man.
As the team’s current star man, his job is to keep everything ticking along. A crucial cog in the team engine. Not to say that the team is completely lost without him, we still beat Chelsea in their own backyard in his absence, but the combinations and passages of play are much slicker when he’s around. Not bad considering his Snapchat suggested he made the most of his summer.
If you watch him closely in a game, you’ll see how he moves around the outside of the box. Showing for a pass before laying it off to a team-mate, making another run to provide an option and then finding a team-mate in a better area with his next touch.
As Neil mentioned on The Pink post-Swansea, as soon as Phil Coutinho’s free-kick rebounded off the wall Firmino was looking around to find the space to move into and once he found it he was there to meet Jordan Henderson’s cross. He makes everything look effortless in a way it seems only a Brazilian can.
The Reds have had 23 different scorers since Klopp’s arrival at Anfield, in October 2015. The outstanding Philippe Coutinho is joint top of that list alongside Firmino, who also has 14 assists to his name. That means he’s been directly involved in around a quarter of the team’s goals during that period. That’s a ridiculous contribution to a team that have been raining goals over the last 12 months.
It’s not an unnoticeable contribution, and many seem to be warming to the idea that Firmino is fast becoming Liverpool’s most important player. He’s proving to be on a different level to most of the defenders he comes up against. Mentally, one step ahead. Plotting his next touch and consequent movement. That being said, his touches and flicks out of this world. Ask Leicester. Ask Derby. Ask Swansea. They will all give you the same answer. He’s unplayable at times. How do you stop him? Whose job is it to stop him? What’s his position on the pitch?
Many have questioned Klopp’s decision to play him as striker in the past. It seemed they were right to question it at times — he didn’t initially look to have the obvious killer instinct and goal contribution of Daniel Sturridge, and didn’t provide the same presence as Divock Origi. And he’s not “naturally” a striker anyway.
We’ve already seen that Klopp doesn’t really care about the natural position of his players though. The team play in phases not positions. Of course there is a formation, and each player will have a literal position on a team-sheet. But the formation is fluid.
Jordan Henderson can sit between whichever centre-back pairing is on the field. Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner bomb on and contribute to the attacking phase of the game, as though they were natural wingers. Adam Lallana and Gini Wijnaldum provides the legs in the midfield, with the movement to transition from defence to attack — the engine room, if you like. The front three are narrow. Each of them swinging between positions. Natural fluidity to every phase of play.
Watch how much Firmino is actually the central presence in the box — clue: it isn’t very often. That isn’t him doing his job wrong, in fact the complete opposite. He’ll be dropping outside the box, picking the ball up and moving it on. Passing and moving. When we’re not in possession he is chasing down possession. Spearheading the press. Chasing down the lost causes, believing he can turn it into a chance for his team — and he often does.
His general contribution, to what is fast becoming one of the most exciting Liverpool sides in my living memory, is so important. Bringing other players into the fold. Bobbing and weaving to draw defenders out of their position and then finding the gap that his team-mate has occupied.
20 – No Liverpool player has been involved in more PL goals than Roberto Firmino since the start of last season (13 goals, 7 assists). Busy.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 1, 2016
During the Reds 5-1 win over Hull, it seemed Firmino hardly ever misplaced a pass. The stats probably suggest otherwise. But what was noticeable was how often his possession of the ball is productive. If the pass isn’t on he will win the team a corner or a throw in. But, most of the time, he finds the gap — threads through a team-mate and then aims to find space. It’s almost always a smart move. In-game intelligence.
He was unfortunate not to register a goal or an assist against Hull, though he managed to get one of each against Swansea (I’m taking winning a penalty as an assist, as it should be). He deserves credit for how he is involved in nearly every phase of attacking play.
Pundits may say it took him a while to get into his stride in the Premier League. They might be right. It could be, however, that Brendan Rodgers didn’t utilise his abilities correctly, compounded by infamously playing him as a right wing back in last season’s fixture against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Versatility is only an asset if you can make the player thrive in your system. Rodgers failed in that sense on several occasions — that’s a conversation for another time, though. But by the time Klopp took over, and he had some time to implement his methods into the team, it quickly became clear that we had got a player worth his price tag, and arguably much more.
Is he the star player? His performances make a very good case for it.
You can continue to appreciate Sturridge’s eye for goal. Coutinho’s worldies. Mane’s frightening pace and strength. Lallana’s touch. Henderson’s passing. All of that good stuff. Keep doing it. The team is really the crucial part of this, and the ultimate winner in the close competition for star man.
Klopp is instilling a team ethic, that’s the best part. No obvious star man. Just a load of dead good footballers. But I wanted to single out Firmino for being dead good at football but, more importantly, helping the team to be dead good at football.
Hopefully he keeps up his stellar contribution to the team. Hopefully the Reds keeping scoring loads of goals, and running their opposition ragged.
Up the Reds.