Three goals and two assists from 13 Premier League appearances represents a modest return so far this season by Roberto Firmino’s lofty standards.
Indeed, having starred as a false 9 in Liverpool’s vaunted front three last season, taking Europe by storm en route to the Champions League final and emerging as major players in the English top flight once again, the way the Brazilian has begun the 2018/19 campaign has led to some observers questioning his place in Jurgen Klopp’s line-up, and suggesting an upgrade might soon need to be sought.
Such recommendations are indicative of football’s short-memory syndrome and, frankly, entirely misguided. Firmino’s output may not have been as easily discernible to date this term, with the former Hoffenheim man contributing directly to fewer goals, but he remains as important to the Reds’ success as ever.
This season has seen a development in Firmino’s role at Anfield. With Klopp electing to utilise the kind of 4-2-3-1 shape with which he enjoyed such success previously at Borussia Dortmund, Mohamed Salah has been moved infield from the left flank and reimagined as an orthodox striker, while Firmino has dropped back into a No.10 role.
The attacking midfield remit is one that perhaps comes more naturally to Firmino, having caught the attention of scouts around Europe in a similar role with Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga before his £29million move to Liverpool in 2015. And even as a nominal striker last season, much of his best work was accomplished in attacking midfield zones, dropping deep to link with midfield colleagues and creating space for Salah to move into.
Even though he still operates in similar areas, Firmino’s new starting position, being further away from the opposition’s goal, inherently means he sees fewer scoring opportunities; his touches inside the opponents’ penalty area has reduced from 6.41 per 90 minutes to 5.27, and his shots-per-90 average has fallen from 2,72 to 2.05.
The deeper role does mean, however, that the technically gifted 27-year-old is more involved in Liverpool’s general play, averaging 41.02 passes per 90 compared to 37.89 last season. As Klopp tinkers with his midfield options to find the perfect meeting point between dynamism and control, and while he seeks to further furnish Salah with regular scoring chances, Firmino’s intelligence of movement and use of the ball makes him the ideal man to connect midfield and attack.
Positional reinvention notwithstanding, Firmino would still expect to be scoring and assisting more regularly. However, his role in last weekend’s 3-0 victory over Watford at Vicarage Road, in which he helped create the deadlock breaking strike for Salah and rounded off the scoring with a goal of his own, suggests the Reds No.9 is rediscovering his edge in the final third.
“He will never come to me because people are saying something is missing and ask: ‘Boss, can I play in my old position again?’” Klopp said of Firmino after the Watford game, when asked about recent criticism directed at the forward.
“He is doing the job. That makes him so unbelievably valuable for us. I’m really happy with him.”
Klopp also astutely pointed out the role perception has played in how Firmino’s recent performances have been assessed, suggesting the trained eye reflects more appreciatively on the minutiae and subtly of the Brazil international’s game.
“It all depends what you want to see, what you expect and what you compare it with,” he added.
“In the last home game against Fulham, I had 20 German coaches in the stadium. Most of them were friends of mine, and I know them all.
“They watched the game. I’m not sure what the critics were saying about Bobby Firmino after the game, but when I saw the coaches later and we had drinks together, they were like ‘Bobby Firmino: what a player!’
“It’s because of the small things he is doing. He is working hard, he is here, he is there, he has five goals now and he opens 5,000 gaps for everybody.”
A brief glance as his statistics might tell you he’s dropped off this season, just as viewing match highlights might cause one to conclude he isn’t offering much of value. But Firmino’s understated yet vital work is no puzzle to Klopp, as the German concludes: “It’s about how you see it.”
*Odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell