In July 2015 Liverpool football club made a significant move in the remodelling of their squad with the signing of Hoffenheim attacker Roberto Firmino for a reported £29M fee. Reaction was mixed amongst the Liverpool fan base with many questioning the acquisition of a player that was perceived as being not top four quality and who was coming from a club that did not play in regular European competition.
These criticisms were not immediately allayed as the Brazilian gradually started to integrate in to the first team. Confusion over his best role in the side and where his strengths were caused some fans to bemoan the lack of immediate return in terms of goals and assists.
Gradually though those that doubted the quality of the new signing were placated as Firmino began to show flashes of brilliance that showed his worth to the team.
Fast forward to now though and Roberto Firmino has emerged as perhaps the most important member of Jurgen Klopp’s first choice team. There is no doubt that there are a number of other players who play key roles in the team with the likes of Sadio Mane, Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne all impressing but Firmino is arguably the key.
He has been used mainly as a central striker but he has also had spells on the left hand side of a front three showcasing his versatility across the attacking line.
The intelligence of the movement from Firmino from central areas when Liverpool access the final third of the pitch is possibly the key to the attacking efficiency that we have seen from Liverpool this season. Coupled with his high work rate and ability to link in with both his midfielders and fellow attacking players there is little doubt that Firmino is well on his way to becoming one of the best players in the Premier League.
When Jurgen klopp was first appointed as Liverpool the focus from the media and the Liverpool fanbase was on his perceived gegenpressing style that would see the side look to pressure the opponent high up the field to force possession to turn over and enable Liverpool to attack from an advanced platform.
Whilst there were some elements of this style early on in Klopp’s reign it certainly wasn’t the high tempo pressing system that we had seen from his time at Dortmund. This was to be expected though as at Dortmund he had recruited and implemented the type of players that are necessary to make this style of play effective.
In all honesty it seems as though Roberto Firmino was made to play the type of high energy counter pressing football that Klopp loves and the Brazilian forward has adapted quickly to the new Liverpool way.
Time and time again Firmino is the player that leads the high press when the opposition have possession in deep areas.
This is often a thankless task as analysis of pressing movements has shown that the first player in to an advanced press is relatively unlikely to actually win the ball back. The turnover in possession comes when the pass from the player under pressure is loose or in to a bad area.
When Firmino leads the press in this manner his intelligence shows clearly in his body shape. He will press the man in possession but position himself to effectively cover another player in his cover shadow.
As Firmino presses the secondary press consists of three players who close the net trying to capitalise on the prospect of a poor pass out of the pressure.
A similar situation from another match in which Firmino played effectively as a number nine. Once more you can see from the body position taken up by the Brazilian that he is covering one of the passing options from the goalkeeper.
Once again the secondary pressing action comes from three players in deeper areas who are positioned to press the ball should it come out from goalkeeper or to take advantage of the loose ball.
Technique and vision
One of the key strengths of Firmino’s game is his ability to connect with his team mates and engage in combination play in and around the final third of the pitch. He has the vision and awareness of space to see enable him to move in and around the oppositions defensive structure to cause maximum damage.
His role is not quite that of a false nine as we have seen defined by the performance of Lionel Messi at Barcelona but there are similar characteristics between the way that both players operate.
Time and time again we will see Firmino move off of the front line either centrally where he will look to receive a vertical pass and build from an advanced platform or out to the wide areas where he will connect with either the fullback or wide attacker in order to create an overload and play through the opposition.
In this example Firmino has identified the option to move out from the centre in to the right half space to connect with the wide player advancing with the ball.
As he moves wide he leaves the opposition centre backs with nobody to directly mark and creates space for central players to run in to from deep areas. He also has the technical ability to play quick combinations with his team mate so that when the ball is played in to his feet he is able to quickly turn it around the corner and play a one two.
One of the benefits to Liverpool in having a player like Firmino with his technical ability and vision comes with the flexibility that it gives the side in the attacking transition.
When you have a forward who is equally comfortable receiving the ball with his back to goal or driving in to space and playing the ball in to space for team mates to attack then it makes it very difficult for the defence to plan for and defend your attacks.
Here we see Firmino driving forwards with the ball in the final third of the pitch. The opposition back line is relatively well set with a narrow back four but they are not effectively marking any one Liverpool player.
Instead as Firmino drives forward he can see the whole pitch and quickly identifies that there is space to be exploited behind the defensive line. Once this space has been identified he then has the ability and the technique to make the pass through to the onrushing attacker.
Movement and Positioning
As alluded to above Firmino is perfectly comfortable in receiving the ball in a number of different situations whether in the wide or half spaces, right up against the defensive line or down in the spaces between the midfield and defensive line of the opposition.
This flexibility makes it extremely difficult for opposition coaches to put an effective defensive gameplan in place.
This image is actually taken from the lead up to one of the Brazilians goals from this season. As the ball is in the central area Firmino has taken up a position right on the shoulder of the centre half and is looking for an opportunity run in behind the defence. As Adam Lallana moves across and pulls another defensive player out of positon and the ball is played vertically through the gap then Firmino is able to move through the space and in on goal.
Here Firmino has moved off of the defensive line and in to a pocket of space. As he takes possession of the ball in this area he has three players moving off of him in to different zones of the pitch. Since he has taken the ball in space he can comfortably turn without being put under immediate pressure and the entire field is then opened up to him.
A player with the vision of Firmino has the capacity to cause untold damage to any defensive structure in this position.
This time Firmino is moving from a deeper starting position and attacking the gaps that are already apparent in the opposition defensive structure. As he moves forward and receives the ball from Milner in the advanced half space he has the capacity to either connect with another team mate or take the ball and drive at goal on his own.
You truly never know where Firmino is going to pop up to take the ball in any given situation.
Roberto Firmino is now surely one of the first names on the teamsheet not only for Jurgen Klopp but for this majority of Liverpool fans. For a player to be so versatile but to not lose any of his effectiveness due to that versatility is a rare thing.
The frightening thing for opposition defences is that you get a very real sense that Firmino is still adapting to the game in England and that he could well go on to get better and better.