I’M 34-years-old. I’ve been a Liverpool supporter since the day I was born, even if I didn’t exactly know it back then. As I’ve said on these pages in the past, my dad’s a Liverpool supporter, as was his dad and as was his dad. It wasn’t a matter of choice for me. It’s a shame that I didn’t really get to experience what it was like to watch Ian Rush in his pomp, but I do remember him during his second spell at the club — or least the latter stages of it. I also remember seeing him in a chippy in Heswall once and thinking, “Oh, that’s Ian Rush”.
Nowadays the chances of you seeing Liverpool’s centre-forward in a chip shop are slim, to say the least. But then nowadays the chance of you seeing Liverpool have a centre-forward on the pitch are also fairly slim. Roberto Firmino is many things but he’s not exactly what you’d call a traditional number nine. That is because of the way that Jürgen Klopp has been setting up his team but simultaneously because of the way that the game seems to be going.
Managers want more from their strikers than they have in the past. Rush could not be involved in the game for 80 minutes and still score a hat-trick. That was an ability Robbie Fowler had, too. So did Fernando Torres, though you’d probably say that the Spaniard was a little more likely to be constantly moving and trying to find gaps than the other two I’ve mentioned ever seemed to do.
During my adult lifetime there has been a long list of the sort of players you’d call out-and-out centre forwards. From Rush to Fowler to Michael Owen to Emile Heskey to Torres to Luis Suarez to Daniel Sturridge. You might say that Heskey was more of a blunt instrument, though I think that’s doing him a disservice. You might also suggest that Suarez was like Firmino on speed, but he still scored the number of goals that you’d expect from a top striker. The fact that he was one of the best players in the world also means that he got to do whatever he thought he needed to in order to win the match.
Whichever way you look at it, though, Liverpool has a tradition of strikers running right the way back through the club’s history. Even when we were pretty poor in other parts of the pitch, the striker was always there to dig you out of a hole if necessary. It’s what Harry Kane does for Tottenham or Diego Costa does for Chelsea now. The first major win I properly remember was the FA Cup win over Arsenal back in 2001. Battered for 90 minutes, Stephane Henchoz using his hand more times that Manchester United have scored offside goals this season and we pick up the trophy because of two moments of clinical finishing from Owen.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I also remember the win over Birmingham in the League Cup in the same season, but that wasn’t quite as spectacular a win for a whole number of reasons. Fowler’s goal was stunning, of course, but I do remember thinking he probably hit that because he couldn’t be arsed running with it. Unfair, obviously, as Fowler was as deadly a finisher as any players that have worn red over the years. He was just as likely to win you a game out of nothing as Owen was, or Rush or even Suarez. He was a different sort of player, but he was a bloody good one.
Klopp is the sort of manager that sets his team up in such a way that if one player isn’t at their peak then we can be found out. It’s a dangerous thing to do, especially when there’s an argument to make that we don’t currently have the personnel who can concentrate for 90 minutes week in, week out. So should Klopp abandon his principles, or should he get in players who can do what he wants? Firmino can do what the manager wants him to. Adam Lallana can, too. They both have poor games, but their poor games aren’t as detrimental to the team as when someone like Emre Can, Dejan Lovren or Divock Origi has a poor game.
Lallana and Firmino having a poor game might mean that they misplace a pass, get the timing of a tackle wrong or miss some good chances. What they won’t do is hide, go missing or let their pressing game have a day off. They’ll harry, chase, run players down and make themselves a nuisance as much as their bodies will allow them to. For better or worse, that’s what it takes to be part of a Klopp team. You saw against Manchester City why it matters. What if James Milner hadn’t had the legs to run back and tackle Raheem Sterling as our former winger was about to put the ball in the back of the net? Would we have found a way back into the game, or would the floodgates have opened?
Thankfully, we didn’t need to find out. Some may have fumed at Lallana’s miss the other day, but he was there to miss it. Having run the length of most of the pitch, the England midfielder could easily have won the game for us at the death having already run his bollocks off for the best part of an hour and a half. That game was played at one hell of a pace, yet he was still running. Let’s not forget that Sergio Aguero, one of the most deadly strikers in the league, also missed a gilt-edged chance at the death. Sometimes players miss when you expect them to score.
When conversations are had about Sturridge and his future at the club, one of the things that gets mentioned is that he’s not reliable enough fitness-wise for Klopp to build a team around. You often hear that about strikers of that calibre, that a team needs to be built around them. Steven Gerrard wasn’t moved behind Torres for a laugh or because Rafa Benitez didn’t know where else to put him, he was put there because it would get the best out of both players. In the same mould, Spurs are set-up to get the best out of Kane, United out of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, though he’s an entirely different type of player, even West Ham do it with Andy Carroll.
My point is, you don’t feel as though Klopp is building his team around Firmino. It’s more that Firmino fits in with what Klopp wants out of his team so he gets to start. That’s why I think it’s such a shame that we haven’t been able to see much of Danny Ings under Klopp. He’s not even close to being as classy or talented a player as Sturridge, but I think he fits in with Klopp’s team ideal better. It’s why I’m also not overly convinced that we’ll go out and buy a ‘typical striker’ in the summer. I think we’ll bring in someone who is clinical in front of goal, but who is complimented by a killer work ethic.
Neil Atkinson often speaks about the need for a manager to never compromise on who they are. If Klopp had decided at the start of this season to build his team around Sturridge, what would have happened when he got injured? If he’d based it around Origi, how would we have coped if he’d been as poor as he has been at times this season? It’s a conundrum that I couldn’t even come close to figuring out how to solve, but then I’m not a Premier League manager.
I remember watching how clinical Rush was. I loved seeing Owen at his very best. Fowler will forever be one of my favourite players. Yet all of them are names from Liverpool’s past. Is the centre-forward soon to be something from a bygone era, too? Perhaps.
Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.