I’ve always been a little bit too obsessed with the Football Manager series of computer games. Back when I was in my early teens, I used to rush home from school with no other thought in my mind apart from conquering Europe with Italian giants (at the time) A.C. Milan, writes RICHARD HODGSON.
My last Football Manager stint coincided with a fascination with the false nine position. Tell a lie, it probably began with Lionel Messi and his role in Pep Guardiola’s mesmerising Barcelona side but I used this intrigue when playing Football Manger and attempted to mirror this approach by concocting tactics that included false nines. Obviously, I failed miserably, but here was one player who played the role successfully for me and that was a certain Roberto Firmino.
Firmino became my favourite Liverpool player this season. Not because of his celebrations like the Brazilian jigs with Philippe Coutinho (or that weird half taking his shirt off one) or even for his endorsement of Liverpool’s local barbers, but for his false nine role at the spearhead of Liverpool’s — at one time — potent attacking front three.
There was a period when Firmino could do no wrong, his five goals and four assists between September and November suggested Liverpool had finally found their new Luis Suarez, even his new teeth didn’t take the shine off his scintillating form. His role in the front quartet of Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane terrorised defences, with Liverpool scoring 24 goals in this period.
Unfortunately, this form was not destined to continue. An ankle injury to Coutinho against Sunderland back in November derailed Liverpool’s season, which began its downward spiral to where it sits currently. Since that day, Firmino has scored two goals and assisted none. As much as I love Firmino, I’m starting to question whether this form is good enough of Liverpool’s number nine.
Admittedly, Coutinho’s injury forced him out wide, with Jürgen Klopp trying to find a place for Daniel Sturridge or Divock Origi, but Firmino out wide is like a square peg in a round hole, he hasn’t got the pace to go past a man and all his intricate footwork and cheeky one-twos are wasted on the wing and he just ends up looking lost and ineffective unlike his Football Manager counterpart.
Watching YouTube clips of all his goals so far this season, I attempted to pinpoint what exactly has gone wrong for Firmino and I noticed a few things. His goals against Leicester, Crystal Palace, Watford and West Ham during his purple patch, all came from central positions and were in the immediate vicinity of the penalty area.
As I said earlier, Firmino has often found himself out wide or been forced to come deep during recent weeks and this is obviously having a negative effect on his game. Against Hull at the weekend, Firmino’s best work took place on the left wing, a neat through ball for James Milner and some clever footwork that led to a cross for Coutinho, who failed to score from what was a good opportunity, but neither passage of play impacted the game significantly.
A week before against Chelsea, he squandered a golden opportunity to equal the score when a loose ball found its way to him in the penalty area. The old Firmino would have took a touch and confidently slotted it past Thibaut Courtois, this Firmino however, swung his right foot at it and sent the ball flying into the stands.
The only saving grace for Firmino recently has been his brace against Swansea back in January. I think this was one of the games I erased from my mind, I couldn’t even bare the highlights on Match of the Day, but looking back you realise just how impressive both the goals were. His first, leaping like salmon to head home and his Suarez-esque equalizer, chesting the ball down and volleying home creating the illusion that he had all the time in the world, when he had three defenders charging towards him.
Undoubtedly, Coutinho and Mane’s absences disrupted the flow to both Liverpool and Firmino’s game. The whole team has lacked direction and fluidity. I would argue that Firmino is still attempting to do the right things, but the team isn’t functioning how it once did.
Whether directed by Klopp or not, Liverpool now attempt to cross the ball far more often than they did which does not suit Firmino’s game at all. There has also been a strange decision to try and pass teams to death (I thought we already tried that one?) again, this snail-like build up does not suit Firmino. It’s painful to watch and probably feels the same to play in. The Hull game marked the first time Klopp could field his favoured front trio since November. Everyone licked their lips and waited with baited breath to see the return of Merseyside’s own brand of total football. As we know now, this did not transpire.
Klopp now has an important decision to make. Does he keep faith in what worked so well before and hope that Mane’s return causes an upturn in form, with Liverpool getting back to their free scoring pre-Christmas ways, in turn helping out our mate Bobby, or does he accept that every team now has a blueprint when playing against us and mix it up by giving Bobby’s spot to Sturridge or Origi? As much as it pains me to betray him like this, my gut feeling is that it’s time for Firmino to sit the next few out. Either way, Klopp must act now. It would be negligent to expect us to play our way out of this slump without any tactical alterations, when recent performances (Chelsea game aside) have done nothing to suggest anything is going to change soon.
My pick would be Origi who proved, when he replaced Coutinho in the team, that his pace and strength can be a handful for Premier League defences, netting five goals in five games. Yes, his recent cameo appearances have done little to inspire but how can we expect to shine when he is always being brought onto the pitch with five minutes left to play?
The other option is Sturridge, who on his day is still one of the best strikers in the league. My only worry with Daniel is that his lack of pace these days and increased tendency to drop deep during games would not offer Liverpool anything different to what we find Firmino has been attempting to little effect recently. Mane’s return will inject the pace we’ve been missing but it’s unfair to rest our season single-handedly on his shoulders, if Origi is given a decent stint in the team we would have two players who possess that much needed explosive pace.
A change in system is also an option, combined with two players up front with pace, it could make all them managers with the “how to beat Liverpool” blueprint rip it up. At the moment, the top four is still salvageable but changes are imperative if we are to get back to blowing teams away, therefore it must start with Liverpool’s striking position.