“LIVERPOOL need a 20-goal a season striker.”
That has been a dominant narrative perpetuated throughout the post-Luis Suarez era, with any hopes of Daniel Sturridge taking up that mantle scuppered by persistent knocks and strains, curtailing the his ability to fulfil his true potential.
As recently as the 2014-15 season, Liverpool’s forward options — a crocked Sturridge aside — amounted to Fabio Borini, Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli, a trio who managed a measly 10 goals combined in 102 appearances for the club. Needless to say, it was a dire state of affairs.
The failed Christian Benteke experiment at the start of the 2015-16 season was symptomatic of the manner in which Brendan Rodgers lost his way during the latter stages of his tenure, the Belgian always a square peg in a round hole in a Liverpool side whose style of play was at odds with his strengths.
For a short while, it appeared as though his younger compatriot, Divock Origi, might be capable of filling the number nine role, up until a cruel injury as a result of Ramiro Funes Mori’s horrific challenge during the first Merseyside Derby of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure prematurely ended his season. In truth, Origi has never been able to recapture his best form since, and has endured an inconsistent loan spell in the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg this season.
Given that the most prolific, proven goalscorers in Europe are almost all at the top clubs, and therefore either unavailable or only available for an extortionate premium, Klopp adopted a more innovative approach to solving Liverpool’s search for a top-class number nine.
Rather than looking to the transfer market, Klopp was creative in moulding an attacking midfielder, signed from Hoffenheim in a deal worth around £29million, in Rodgers’ final summer at the helm.
Roberto Firmino endured a rough start to life at Liverpool, fielded in a wide-midfield berth by Rodgers, a position which did not allow him to express himself and influence games.
Firmino was a peripheral figure without a clearly defined role; one with enormous footballing talent, in need of a coach who would enable him to demonstrate this on a regular basis.
Fast forward to the present, and Firmino has broken the 25-goal marker for the first time in his professional career, netting the third goal in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth at Anfield.
While his performances under Klopp had been generally excellent in the two seasons prior, his goal tallies of 11 and 12 in all competitions in 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively left many wondering whether Firmino offered enough end product to justify his long-term place as the focal point of Liverpool’s attacks.
Those questions have been emphatically answered this season in some style, with Firmino stepping up a level into the elite bracket of centre forwards in European football, and one of the outstanding performers in the Premier League this season.
With 13 assists to go along with his 25 goals, Firmino is now delivering the end product to complement his relentless work rate, pressing from the front and positional intelligence; a combination of skills which make him a unique type of centre forward who is perfectly suited to Klopp’s style of football, spearheading one of the most feared attacking trios in Europe.
Firmino’s game has always been about so much more than goals and assists, constantly dropping deep and pulling out wide into unorthodox positions to link play and drag defenders out of shape, opening up the spaces into which the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane arrive to wreak havoc.
As the following graphics from the app “SofaScore” illustrate, Liverpool’s frontline in their recent home games tends to be configured in a diagonal line, with Salah the furthest forward, coming infield off the right flank, with Mane slightly deeper on the left, and Firmino drifting in between the two.
The fact that Salah and Mane have 40 and 17 goals to their names respectively is, of course, worthy of great credit on their part, but the fact that both players — particularly Salah — have delivered such prolific numbers is in no small part down to Firmino’s role as the facilitator in Liverpool’s forward line. Without his intelligent movement and creativity, it would simply not be possible for Salah and Mane to hit such heights.
Liverpool have scored a remarkable number of spectacular goals this season, many of which have been pieces of individual brilliance by Salah, Mane and Firmino. Yet one which stands out in terms of illustrating Firmino’s atypical centre-forward play is Salah’s goal against Southampton away, as Liverpool ran out 2-0 victors on the day (with Firmino scoring the opener, assisted by Salah).
Joel Matip had played an incisive forward pass into Salah, who quickly shifted the ball on to Firmino 20 yards from goal before continuing his run into the penalty area. Firmino then produced a stunning piece of technical skill with one of the finest assists in many a year, flicking the ball perfectly into Salah’s path with his back to goal, lifting his pass ever so slightly to evade any attempt at an interception. Salah did the rest with a typically cool finish from close range, but this goal epitomised the unique genius of Firmino — the kind only a handful of players in world football would even consider replicating, let alone be capable of executing.
It is unconventional, in footballing terms, to speak of a number nine as the “engine” of a side but, in Liverpool’s case, the term very much applies with Firmino. It is his unparalleled ability to harry opposition defenders into mistakes by cutting off passing angles, often stealing the ball in dangerous areas to set up attacks, that marks Firmino as such a rare type of number nine.
The numbers back it up, too.
Firmino’s 49 tackles in the Premier League so far this season puts him substantially ahead of Harry Kane (13), Alvaro Morata (eight), Sergio Aguero (six) and Romelu Lukaku (four), who have 31 tackles combined between them.
His chance creation of 1.89 per game is also the highest of all these strikers, while Firmino’s 0.55 interceptions per game, successful take-on rate of 71 per cent and average number of successful passes (26.92) all put him significantly ahead of his peers in each category.
Get you a man who can do both pic.twitter.com/V5xpm178jb
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 17 April 2018
To further emphasise the point, Firmino’s 1.78 tackles per game is higher than the likes of Eric Dier (1.43), Nemanja Matic (1.29) and Fernandinho (1.07), all of whom play in defensive midfield for top Premier League clubs. Of course, the fact that Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Manchester City all tend to have high possession percentages mean these players need to make fewer tackles than midfielders in lesser sides, but the point still stands.
For a centre forward to get through the amount of defensive work he does, while also directly contributing 38 goals so far this season, is quite remarkable. He also has the physical durability to be able to perform a role of such intensity, week in, week out, rarely ever rested from the starting 11.
It’s also a testament to his strength of personality and professionalism that even throughout a protracted investigation over accusations of racial abuse (for which he was cleared), Firmino’s performance levels never dipped.
There has, at last, rightly been greater attention afforded to Firmino from those outside of the Liverpool sphere this season, with the Brazilian’s performances finally catching the eye of the wider football audience, in no small part down to his contributions throughout Liverpool’s run to the Champions League semi finals.
In the first leg of the quarter-final tie against Manchester City, it was Firmino who was quickest to react and steal the ball off Kyle Walker to tee up Salah’s opener, and it was Firmino who compounded Man City’s misery after Salah’s equaliser by wrapping up the second-leg victory, having stolen the ball off Nicolas Otamendi in the final third, before calmly slotting the ball into the far corner past Ederson to secure Liverpool’s passage into the final four of Europe’s elite competition for the first time in a decade.
While Salah has taken the majority of the plaudits and is now the favourite to be crowned PFA Player of the Season, the Egyptian’s heroics should not cloud over what a sensational season Firmino has had. He may not have been nominated for an individual accolade, and many would argue there are more naturally prolific “pure” number nines around.
For Liverpool, though — with a front three boasting over 80 goals between them already this campaign — there is not a single centre forward in world football better suited to Klopp’s side than the man who is now the highest scoring Brazilian in a single Premier League season, ever.
The quest for Liverpool’s next great number nine is, finally, complete.
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“It’s feels like we’re starting to get blasé about having a lad who’s scoring 40 goals.” 👑
“This is what it feels like when you’ve got a good team to support, a team that’s going places.” 👊
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 16 April 2018