THERE has been plenty of talk this season among fans, pundits and journalists alike about whether Liverpool need a more orthodox striker who guarantees a higher goal tally than Roberto Firmino has suggested he is capable of.
It’s an intriguing conundrum and one which has no definitive answer. The desire to have a bona fide goal machine of a centre forward is an easy one to understand. Having watched the likes of Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez over the years, we’re a fan base which has become accustomed to elite level centre forwards.
Firmino, by contrast, has adopted a totally different interpretation of the role at the focal point of Jürgen Klopp’s system. The manager clearly has enormous faith in him as Firmino has been the first pick on the team sheet virtually every time he has been available for selection since Klopp’s arrival at the club in October 2015.
At no point has Firmino ever looked like a 25-30 goal per season striker and has operated at roughly a one in three goals to games ratio throughout his career so far, although a tally of seven goals and four assists after 15 starts this season suggests he could be on track to record his best total so far should he maintain his current rate.
Yet Firmino is about so much more than simply sticking the ball in the back of the net — even if that is conventionally seen as the primary job of a centre forward. Firmino consistently displays intelligent movement, pulling defenders into zones they don’t want to be, opens up spaces for his teammates to exploit. He also directly created 76 chances last season, bettered only by Lionel Messi (78) and more than double the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski (both 30).
His off-the-ball numbers last season showed his exceptional defensive contribution in making 41 tackles, which is considerably more than any other forward in Europe and more even than top level Premier League centre backs such as Gary Cahill (40) and Jan Vertonghen (33). His interception and aerial duel stats also mark him out as unique in comparison to any other forward on the continent, all of which is essential to his function in Liverpool’s counter-pressing system.
It’s quite clear, therefore, that Firmino is something of a unique breed of footballer — one who is incredibly gifted and integral to everything Klopp has built his side around. That’s not to even mention his exquisite first touch or spatial awareness of what’s happening around him.
The difficulty comes when opposition sides have no interest in having any possession, which renders the pressing side of Firmino’s game effectively impossible. Sides who put 10 men behind the ball and maintain a compact, deep-lying defensive structure are often the kind of sides where a ruthless centre forward is what is required to break the deadlock.
Firmino has scored his fair share of important goals, but frustration comes when he either spurns opportunities a clinical striker would be expected to score, or where his tendency to drop deep to become involved in the buildup play deprives Liverpool of a body in the penalty area.
This season, however, Liverpool have themselves a player who has already reached double figures for goals in his first 15 starts for the club — only, he’s not even a centre forward by trade. Mohamed Salah’s phenomenal goal return is on the same level as Fernando Torres (also 10) and superior to Luis Suarez (7) in their first 16 appearances for Liverpool and yet he hasn’t received the credit he deserves due to the fact he has also missed his fair share of presentable opportunities.
Liverpool’s top scorers by season since Suárez left. It’s November 2nd, and Mohamed Salah is joint-10th. A missed pen away from joint-7th. pic.twitter.com/CJFatDqTgS
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) 2 November 2017
Yet the fact remains, Salah is second only to Neymar (11 goals) in terms of the most prolific wide players across Europe’s big five leagues so far this season (joint with Raheem Sterling, also on 10). Not since 2013-14 have Liverpool had a player score more than 14 goals in a single season (managed by Philippe Coutinho last campaign) and yet Salah is closing in on that number come early November and is currently operating at a rate which could — fitness issues aside — see him surpass 40 goals in his first season for the club.
It has been an astonishing start and those who fixate on his missed chances are essentially criticising him for not matching Lionel Messi — as mentioned by The Anfield Wrap’s John Gibbons in his post-Maribor ratings. This is a player who Liverpool bought for £36.9 million and within a few months he has probably at least doubled or even tripled that market value.
Imagine Liverpool had spent £50 million plus on a centre forward in the summer and they had returned 10 goals in their first 15 starts. Everyone is probably lauding them and saying we finally have that prolific frontman we’ve yearned for since 2013-14 when Suarez and Daniel Sturridge both hit 25 plus goals each.
The fact that those goals are coming from a player ostensibly starting on the right flank shouldn’t matter. In reality, Salah’s goalscoring instincts and clever diagonal runs means he often finds himself in typical striker’s positions, anyway. A better way to assess the situation might be to tally up Liverpool’s total goals from their frontline come the end of the season, which you suspect will be a very healthy one — especially once Sadio Mané is back fit and firing once more.
While it’s a purely hypothetical scenario, it seems unlikely that Salah would manage to be quite so prolific were Liverpool to play with a more orthodox number nine in place of Firmino — a Harry Kane or Alvaro Morata-type figure, for instance. While these strikers might bag 25 or 30 goals themselves, they wouldn’t provide the all-round contribution Firmino does and crucially, they wouldn’t make the kind of movement Firmino does to allow the likes of Salah and Mané to get themselves in such central areas with such regularity.
2 – Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah are the only players to have provided assists for each other in the Champions League this season. Duo. pic.twitter.com/3l5uYAJiAO
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) 1 November 2017
In an ideal world, you’d have a centre forward who does all the extra business Firmino does for the team as well as plundering 30 plus goals a season, but the reality is that such a player doesn’t exist — and even if they did, the likelihood of Liverpool being able to afford them or even attract them over other more financially powerful clubs would be improbable.
In Firmino, Liverpool have an ultimate facilitator who enables those around him in the forward line to exchange positions and score the goals you would expect to come primarily from the centre forward. Salah and Mané drift centrally so often that strict positions don’t necessarily apply, even if their starting position is wide right or wide left.
Firmino himself is on target to reach 20 goals in all competitions this season and despite being an entirely different mould of striker to some of the greats we’ve experienced, his role is no less essential and enables the likes of Salah to record prolific goal tallies of their own from other areas of the pitch.
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— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 24 October 2017
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Firmino as a 9 wont be winning us any League Titles.
Good thing Firmino’s not a 9, then.
I think we can win things with Firmino up top. Scoring goals is not our issue and has not been for a while.