“BOBBY Firmino” rang the now familiar chant from the Smethwick End at The Hawthorns last Sunday after another vital winning goal from the Brazilian.
I’ve got to be honest, I’m not that fussed with the “Bobby” moniker, not solely down to the fact I’m a miserable old sod but because I want my Brazilians to stay South American. Liverpudlians have always celebrated being a bit foreign, somewhat different; very much part of our unique identity as a football club.
I want Firmino to remain exotic and not be lumped in with the Englanders; Bobbies Charlton and Moore, the moustachioed Bobbies of the beat, and the Bluenose contingent — the 1970s Bob Latchford, “Bobby” Martinez, and Poland’s Robert Warzycha, who became the Gwladys Street’s “Bob the Pole”.
If the point is to make an honorary Scouser of him; with his shorn sides and extravagant sweep of hair, the dazzling comedy gnashers and skinny inked-up torso, he couldn’t be further removed from your ordinary man on the street.
Of course, there’s a more serious point to this. If the decisive goal in the Black Country last week was very much a nod home in keeping with your average Bob who works in Fords, the evolving Firmino is beginning to indulge us in new levels of fantasy, while also remaining a captain of industry.
If for the previous week’s Stoke spectacular you could trade a sweat-soaked golden Brazil shirt for the black Liverpool away top and swap those grainy, embryonic colour TV pictures for today’s HD, you have a goal which would slot nicely into a Pele, Rivelino and Jairzinho showreel.
Firmino probably got off on the wrong foot with Liverpool fans with his arrival from Hoffenheim for a cool £29million coinciding with the dying embers of the Brendan Rodgers reign. Despite the transfer bearing the hallmarks of a transfer committee signing, supporters were quick to write him off as another Rodgers blunder — to place alongside Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert — in the wake of the failed attempts to fill the huge hole left by Luis Suarez.
If we’re still coming to terms with the fact Firmino is actually a bona fide centre-forward, there were few signs in his tentative, early performances of the rumbustious player we’ve now taken to our hearts.
A rasping shot from distance which smacked against the crossbar in the fated 3-0 home defeat to West Ham was a small clue, but another lifeless showing — ostracised out on the right of a packed midfield — symptomatic of supine surrender at Old Trafford was enough to not only condemn Rodgers but also cast major doubts on the suitability of Firmino to the Premier League.
A back injury against Carlisle subjected Firmino to a month on the sidelines; enough time in his absence, albeit with the flimsiest of evidence, for supporters to label him a “lightweight” — the final extravagance of a doomed regime.
If seasoned Liverpool watchers were ready to give up on all but a few of the men bequeathed to Jürgen Klopp, thankfully the new manager arrived with fresh eyes and clean slate for a squad he insisted was brim full of quality.
Klopp has since gone on record to say he already recognised Firmino as one of the best players in the Bundesliga. “When I saw that Liverpool had signed him I thought, ‘How could Liverpool do this?’ — they were not in their best moment and other clubs would have spent more on him. What a good transfer for them.”
Firmino, perhaps reinvigorated by Klopp’s faith, slowly grafted his way back from injury and into first-team contention. Klopp’s maiden victory, against Bournemouth in the League Cup, was notable for an expressive, roving Firmino show, employed for the first time up front. When the Reds mauled Manchester City a month later there were primary signs of a telepathic attacking link with Phil Coutinho and a first Firmino goal in a Liverpool shirt in a signature 4-1 win which restored hope to Liverpool hearts.
Firmino’s influence though, throughout an inconsistent Klopp honeymoon, was sporadic. What was notable was a defensive work ethic unfamiliar with the South American stereotype in-keeping with Klopp’s pressing requirements but also an absence of real flair. While his compatriot Coutinho would decorate matches with moments of brilliance, for the time being Firmino’s natural gifts remained hidden.
Arsenal at home in January was the turning point when Firmino’s two goals; emphatic strikes from inside and outside the box respectively, came as a welcome surprise and lit up a rollicking 3-3 draw. A further brace at Norwich in another chaotic encounter hinted that Firmino could assume the role of a roaming goal getter. His tap in against Manchester United in the Europa League also re-illustrated a poacher’s instinct, suggesting a richer possible return in front of goal.
Firmino finished last season with 11 goals to his name; a respectable tally but no more than the expectation of a free-scoring midfielder. This season, without being the prolific marksman some would prefer, his contribution has to be measured beyond the six assists and 12 goals that now make him the Reds top scorer. If there is a frustration, it lies in the occasional indecisive finish. At both the Etihad and Old Trafford this season a cleaner strike and stronger sense of belief when in on goal might have secured all three points.
As the central presence in Klopp’s front three, Firmino is the wandering fulcrum of the attack; a constant menace and distraction creating alternative spaces for Coutinho and Sadio Mane. While his colleagues have both succumbed to damaging injuries, the robust Firmino has soldiered on and led the line throughout.
— Premier League (@premierleague) April 16, 2017
For recent comparison, he evokes the battling never-say-die spirit of Dirk Kuyt. But to compare them for quality is to damn Firmino — who owns a more composed touch and greater awareness and imagination — with the faintest praise.
Further back in the annals of Liverpool forwards, there is something of Kevin Keegan in Firmino — at home foraging from deeper positions, dropping into midfield to collect, but always intent on finding space. Keegan too embellished his game with extravagant tricks which are also the Firmino anomaly; amid the industry an outrageous turn and spin never too far away.
Keegan in turn drew comparisons with Luis Suarez for his constant buzz around the penalty area. Keegan, throughout his Liverpool career, averaged a goal every three games — a ratio in keeping with Firmino’s output thus far. For two-and-half Liverpool seasons, Suarez too was inconsistent in front of goal before blossoming into a predatory striker beyond compare for the Reds and Barcelona.
At the age of 26, with the prospect of a Champions League stage to further showcase his talents, it feels like Roberto Firmino is on the verge and capable of another step up.
Whether he came make the quantum leap to rival Suarez or Keegan in the pantheon of Liverpool greats is another matter, but I’d happily celebrate the elevation to superstar status of Brazilian Bob.