The Rise of Roberto Firmino
Irony can be a funny thing.
In 2014, Northern Irishman Brendan Rodgers, The King of Calm, steadily led Liverpool within touching distance of the elusive Premier League title, only for the Reds to stumble an inch from the finishing line. After inevitably failing to replace the irreplaceable Luis Suarez, they underwhelmed and underachieved the following season. Liverpool’s famous ‘transfer committee’ turned to the transfer market for the answers to the club’s troublesome year. One such answer came from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim in the form of the irrepressible, £29million, Brazilian bundle of energy Roberto Firmino.
Initially he struggled hugely. Out of form, out of sorts, and when he played, out of position, he made just seven appearances without scoring a single goal before Rodgers left the club in October 2015. The irony in his signing is that, following the managers departure, Firmino would increasingly prove a perfect match for the next man at the helm, Jürgen Klopp. In 43 games under the genial German, he’s notched 15 goals and 10 assists and shoehorned his way into becoming one of the first names on the team sheet, despite some serious competition. Not bad at all.
Despite the club spending close to a whole £AndyCarroll on him, Rodgers failed miserably in utilising Firmino, even playing him as a defensive winger – almost a right wing-back – against Manchester Utd of all teams. Now Liverpool’s leading league marksman under Klopp, he appears to be flirting dangerously with the blistering form that saw him once crowned the Breakthrough Player of the Year in the German Bundesliga, and is going a long way to proving his monetary value in a market where that kind of money could get you a lot less (I mean, Moussa Sissoko’s good and all, but…).
Against everyone’s fairytale favourites Leicester City, I think he showed this more than ever before. He scored braces against Arsenal and Norwich last year, but these were in games Liverpool drew and should have drawn respectively. This time, his movement, his relentless hunting of the ball and his outrageous chemistry with practically everyone in the team spurred Liverpool on immeasurably. In recent seasons Liverpool have survived on an attacking life support machine, sucking feebly at a goal-filled drip, only for the leaky defence to puncture the bag from time to time. Now, with Gegenpressing in full swing, the lads seem capable of putting quality teams to the sword once more.
The first goal against the Foxes was just lovely. Daniel Sturridge was leading the front line, and his run out wide pulled Wes Morgan and Robert Huth so far apart Anfield’s record Premier League crowd might have squeezed between them side by side. As James Milner’s through ball rolled in front of Firmino, he exhibited some delicious foresight to pull the ball almost blindly past the on-running Huth, completely skinning a very useful centre-back, before swiftly wrong-footing Danish ‘keeper Kasper Schmeichel to make it 1-0.
For the second goal, his movement caused havoc again. He dropped deep to collect a pin-point pass from Lucas and plonked the ball nicely to skipper Jordan Henderson to spring a deadly Liverpool attack. In coming to collect the ball it was Firmino who pulled Wes Morgan miles out of position this time, creating acres of space for Sturridge and new-boy Sadio Mané to do the rest. Time and again his movement created problems and the threat of another LFC goal always seemed moments away.
Not one to be satisfied with a solid 88 minutes word, the tireless Brazilian charged up the field for one final counter attack in the dying minutes to provide company for the otherwise lone speed freak Mané. He and he alone surged across more than three quarters of the pitch in support of the heavily outnumbered Senegalese forward, allowing him to turn a tricky chance into an opportunistic tap in for Bobby instead.
Many in Germany remarked on Firmino’s insatiable appetite for success, based on the attitude of a man who knows every second of the game counts. Such virtues allowed him to kill the game off, rather than suffer the usual nervy finish. Liverpool have played more passes than anyone in the league so far this season, and with this side’s ability to wear down and exhaust the opposition as games go on, I can see that his approach to the end of a game coming good again and again in the future.
He’s been more than just a one game wonder though. One of just five players to play every minute in the league so far, Klopp clearly recognises this unquenchable desire will be key to turning Liverpool into a Klopp-ier team week after week. Firmino embodies all that his manager champions, and is proving it this season.
His permanent ball-hunt seems to throw the opposition into all kinds of pressure, and he has averaged 50 passes a game so far in four quite frankly tricky games, compared to his average 33 of last season. The support of equally energetic players like Mané and the rejuvenated Adam Lallana only make his job easier as well.
Despite joining the club under Rodgers, Firmino really is an absolutely spot-on match for Jürgen Klopp. It’s like your ex introducing you to your future life-partner, and while it might make painful viewing the Rodgers I for one wish Bobby and Klopp and long and happy marriage.
I really liked Rodgers, but he couldn’t find the Firmino that left Hoffenheim. Klopp, on the other hand, is suddenly squeezing every last drop of energy and enthusiasm out of Firmino and it’s properly delightful to see a quality player go through a sticky patch and come out the other end of it shining brighter than ever.