IN the midst of last Saturday’s draw with Manchester United, while Ashley Young was doing his utmost to prevent Liverpool gaining any kind of momentum, my gaze became fixed on another player.
The lovely autumn sun and the vibrancy of the green Anfield turf left me semi hazy and meditational as I pondered the question to myself: “What would Romelu Lukaku look like in this Liverpool team?”
This wasn’t in the sense of me lauding Man United’s number nine, far from it. Watching him on Saturday proved to me, if needed, he is the epitome of a limited conventional centre forward. He does most things to par, his ability to link up play with his back to goal is notably underwhelming. Yet, Saturday apart, the notion is that he scores when his chance comes and that’s his job done.
This is something Liverpool fans have debated to the point of exhaustion recently; do we need the 20-goal-a-season striker to cure our woes in front of goal? Are we better sacrificing the collective aim and sense of joint responsibility and place it solely on one player to rectify what has been wrong with this Liverpool season? I’d say no.
Tuesday night’s win in Maribor shows what happens when minor individual mistakes are rectified and the collective get it right. Liverpool were formidable in every department, which was exemplified by Mohamed Salah’s early pick out of Roberto Firmino in the opening minutes. From then on Liverpool did not look back.
This was an example of what happens when the right decisions are made in games of football. Doubt is not allowed to seep in, problems aren’t allowed to become problems and trust in themselves and each other is restored, only then are the fruits of aspiration borne.
Firmino, on last night’s form is an extraordinary player. He can do seemingly everything on top of scoring goals. The fact that the responsibility of putting the ball in the net has fallen solely on him in recent weeks has been somewhat unfair, given how much he continues to contribute to the team.
He has had the occasional poor game along the way, but to expect him to score regardless of wider team context is unrealistic. He is so embodied in what this team is and is trying to be that he has become such a large part of its collective positives and negatives.
The argument against the conventional, stereotypical centre forward is an interesting one. That a lot of Liverpool goals involve Firmino in some way, directly or indirectly, poses the quandary of what this side would look like as an attacking force if that was replaced with an on-the-shoulder goal poacher?
The movement of Liverpool’s number nine ensures that he can drop in to start moves, pull out wide, make runs to drag players left and right. All of which is fundamental to the fluency and movement Jürgen Klopp desires from his Liverpool team, particularly in the final third.
It is also easy to forget just how much of the physical aspects of Firmino’s game are present when wishing for something a touch more conventional. While craving for some dystopian, boorish, Alan Shearer-like totem, it is easy to forget all Firmino’s other, more unattractive attributes.
He’s good in the air and impeccable with his back to goal, and has a penchant for tackles, interceptions and tracking back, all numbers that are key for Klopp’s collective defending and attacking mindset.
In 74 league appearances for Liverpool, Firmino has made 133 tackles with 42 interceptions. To compare it to someone like Lukaku, who has made 52 tackles and eight interceptions in 194 league appearances, the difference is night and day.
The old arguments might arise here; it’s what he does in front of goal that counts etc. However, you can’t have one without the other in this Liverpool team. Without that work rate, that effort for the team, Liverpool are not able to regain possession high up the pitch, to explode into space, to keep teams pushed back and penetrate, to be every inch a Liverpool with a Klopp identity.
Last night is an example of what materialises when all of the above happens and the correct decisions are made in key moments, when we cut loose and relax in the right moments. We all must realise that we have to buy into all of this manager’s vision.
It’s a 2013-14 type of buy in, a grabbing the ball off Jose Mourinho for a pointless throw in when the game is 0-0 and we don’t have to win type of buy in. This is what we are and what they do, for one element to work it all needs to work. That can be frustrating and at times to its detriment, but look what happens when it clicks.
It’s also worth looking at how contrastingly good and bad Liverpool have looked with a centre forward in the mould of Daniel Sturridge. Sturridge is becoming a very strange footballer. One who is too good to go and play anywhere below the top six yet physically nowhere near able to start every week for a team in it.
In this team, Sturridge is fast becoming a player you only bring on when you’re protecting a lead and those spaces have already opened up for him to showcase his brilliant and sagacious nature as a footballer.
If you examine the lack of impact he has had from the start of games, it shows that the spaces and openings he craves just aren’t there without the front three working in complete tandem to engineer them. This would be the same for any striker brought in relying solely on goals.
This team tend not play in a manner that wears the opposition down in a laboured and fragmented manner and waits for one chance. They do not stay behind their jab and wait for a big shot. They probe and move constantly with combinations, constantly looking for the opportunity to open up a foray of punches that leaves their opponent dazed on the canvas and towels being thrown in from all directions.
A look at Sturridge’s role in this current squad is a significant insight into what life could be like with a goals-only forward. Be careful what you wish for.
History supports the notion that Klopp prefers a more rounded central striker and wants his players to think beyond their predatory positional instincts. When Robert Lewandowski joined Borussia Dortmund in 2010-11 he did so as the top goalscorer in Polish football. Yet a return of just eight goals in 33 appearances led to questions being asked, not least by Lewandowski himself, who was initially deployed as a number 10, much to his bemusement.
“It was only in the following year that I realised how much I had learned in that position. Then I realised why the coach had asked me to play as a number 10; he made me a more complete player.”
As much as you can tag Lewandowski as a target man, a poaching natural goalscorer, the player himself cites Klopp’s development of his all-round game as the reason for his meteoric rise to an elite-level forward. Klopp is not a manager who will abandon his ideals for any player, if Liverpool signed another Lewandowski in January who could not operate as a number 10, as well as a number nine, oh and at times a seven, then forget it.
Liverpool currently have that in their Brazilian forward wearing the club’s historic number nine. Don’t lament Bobby for not being a Robbie Fowler or Fernando Torres, instead embrace and laud everything he is in conjunction with everything we are.
In years to come, there is no doubt we will be stating just how much we need another Bobby Firmino.
Liverpool’s biggest ever away win in Europe ✊️
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 17 October 2017
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