Liverpool’s new number 9, Roberto Firmino, is starting his third season at the club, and it’s set to be his biggest and most challenging yet.
Over the course of his Liverpool career – spanning 90 appearances, in which he has scored 23 times – Firmino has blossomed into one of the league’s finest forwards, with a well-rounded game, making him vital to Jürgen Klopp’s side. His importance to the Liverpool side cannot be understated.
Tite, the Brazilian national team coach, recently revealed that Firmino actually played through an injury during the later games of the season, as Liverpool desperately chased Champions League qualification:
‘Firmino was in poor physical condition, he only played for Liverpool because of the importance of the games.
‘Firmino would not have played if Liverpool weren’t fighting for a Champions League spot.’
For Liverpool fans, it may be disconcerting that their first-choice striker struggled with fitness and fatigue too, towards the end of the season, as he sat out the opening half of the Gameweek 32 fixture, away to Stoke. This issue is even more pertinent when we consider that Liverpool will likely be playing a season that may well last over 60 games, compared to the relatively light 47 competitive games that Liverpool played during the 2016-17 season, of which Firmino featured in 41.
To understand Firmino best though, it’s necessary to look at what he has contributed to the team, and then to put that in context along with some other players.
Firmino at Liverpool (2015/16 onwards) & Hoffenheim (2010/11-2014/15)
|Season||Apps.||Total Mins. Played||Goals||Assists||Frequency of G+A involvement*||Shots**||Key Passes**||Average Passes**||Pass Success Rate** (pc)||Tackles**||Interceptions**|
*Frequency of G+A involvement (TotalMinsPlayed/(G+A))
i.e. how long does it take for the player to contribute one Goal or Assist in minutes?
Firmino’s 2015/16 numbers are even more impressive when considering he was asked to play out of position under Rodgers, and played far fewer minutes than he did in 2016/17 – but his dip in form can be expected, especially as Liverpool went through a jam-packed fixture list, without Coutinho and Mané for much of it, placing excessive pressure on Firmino. Firmino’s overall figures also indicate growing consistency too, as he settles into the league: if he were to contribute – via goals and assists – as freely as he did in his third full-season at Hoffenheim, Liverpool’s Premier League and Champions League prospects would be greatly enhanced.
This small table lacks context, so I’ve selected a few players known for their pressing ability, and rival strikers too for the following comparison.
Firmino compared to Griezmann, Werner, Lacazette & selected Premier League forwards (2016/17)
|Apps.||Total Mins. Played||Goals||Assists||Non-pen Goals||Freq. of (non-pen) G+A involvement*||Shots**||Key Passes**||Avg. Passes**||Pass Success Rate** (pc)||Dribbles** (x(unsucessful: successful))||Dribble Success Rate** (pc)||Tackles**||Interceptions**||Aerial Duels** (x(won:lost))||Aerial Duel Success Rate** (pc)|
|Firmino||34(1)||3039||11||7||11||168.8||2.9||2.2||44.1||79.4||3.7 (1.7:2.0)||54.1||1.7||0.7||6 (1.9:4.2)||31.7|
|Griezmann||36||3067||16||8||16||127.8||2.4||1.6||35.6||78.3||1.6 (0.8:0.8)||50.0||1.3||0.5||3.1 (1.3:1.8)||41.9|
|Werner||28(3)||2435||21||5||19||101.5||2.4||1.0||22.9||67.5||2.3 (1.5:0.8)||34.8||0.8||0.7||2.7 (1:1.7)||37.0|
|Sanchez||36(2)||3224||24||10||22||100.8||3.4||2.1||43.3||73.6||4.5 (1.5:3)||66.7||1.4||0.7||1.8 (0.4:1.4)||22.2|
|Lacazette||28(2)||2408||28||3||18||114.7||2.8||1.7||28.2||78||2.4 (0.6:1.8)||75.0||1||0.1||2.7 (1:1.7)||27.0|
|Costa||35||3090||20||7||20||114.4||3.2||1.2||29.5||75.2||3.9 (2.3:1.6)||41.0||0.5||0.2||4.5 (1.3:3.2)||28.9|
|Lukaku||36(1)||3267||25||6||24||108.9||3.0||1.3||26.1||65.5||2.6 (0.9:1.7)||65.4||0.2||0.0||8.9 (3.7:5.1)||41.6|
|Kane||29(1)||2536||29||7||24||81.8||3.7||1.4||19.9||71.7||2.7 (1.4:1.3)||48.1||0.7||0.1||4.0 (1.6:2.3)||40|
|Agüero||25(6)||2407||20||3||16||126.7||3.0||1.0||24.9||82.4||4.7 (1.7:3.0)||63.8||0.6||0.1||1.4 (0.3:1.1)||21.4|
In terms of tackles and interceptions, only Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann comes close to Firmino: it’s abundantly clear why many consider him the archetypal ‘Klopp-player’. With Firmino up top, attack really is the best form of defence, with Firmino functioning as an offensive defender but also a incessant threat to opposition sides.
When looking at the Frequency of (non-penalty) goals and assists involvement, it seems Firmino lags a great deal behind other top European forwards; however, one of the most revealing figures is actually the Average Passes per 90 statistic: Firmino has 44.1, more than any other forward in this comparison.
What does this 44.1 passes per 90 figure tell us though?
The answer is that Firmino is highly integrated with both the attack and midfield, as a false-nine is expected to be. In which case, Firmino’s wider impact on the side must be assessed – and is done so further on.
Considering the forwards Firmino is compared to are all out-and-out strikers, the very fact that Firmino has comparatively respectable figures is impressive. Admittedly, Firmino has had poor patches in relation to goals and assists. For instance: by March 3rd 2017, Firmino had only scored 3 goals in his previous 18 games, and recorded 0 assists in those games too.
His propensity to still perform, despite rough patches, or in big games cannot be disputed. Decisive in crunch-games, such as the Arsenal fixture, at Anfield, Firmino has a knack for contributing when it matters most: we need only look at his display, and goal against West Brom, at the Hawthorns, when the pressure was on, and Liverpool were right up against the wall.
Firmino’s figures in context are best explained by Paul Tomkins:
‘You can look at the one big anomaly – ranked 57th for goals – and say that he therefore shouldn’t be playing as a centre-forward. But I don’t think the job of the centre-forward is to score goals, per se – his job is to help the team win. Indeed, that’s everyone’s job. People must start to see football this way, as that’s the reality. It’s about winning games, and while goals do that, the striker doesn’t have to be the one that’s relied upon.
‘…The key is for the Brazilian to chip in with goals too, but it’s vital that others occupy the spaces he vacates, when he drags defenders away from the central area, and for those players – Lallana, Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can from midfield; Sadio Mané and Philippe Coutinho running in from wide – to score too.’
Essentially, Firmino gets the best out of the players around him. His goal/assist output in 2015/16 and 2016/17 may be quite similar, however, it masks the full story of his improvement, the addition of fluidity to the team and his importance, in how he gets the best out of Coutinho, Mané, Lallana, and hopefully will do so to Mohamed Salah.
Firmino is the crucial focal point for Liverpool. Attacking build-up often goes through, or is initiated by him, whilst he additionally finds himself finishing off attacking play too. His all-round ability in terms of his passing, shooting, dribbling, physicality and movement makes him the perfect forward within the 4-3-3 system Liverpool currently employs.
What does the future hold for Firmino?
In immediate terms, Firmino will be expected to lead the Liverpool line in the upcoming Liverpool Premier League and Champions League campaigns. However, his function within this may well change; we saw near the end of the 2016/17 season Liverpool use a diamond formation, with Firmino alongside Daniel Sturridge. He may well thrive as part of a two, given the freedom to drop or roam, exploiting the gaps the other striker will make. This may well form one solution to Liverpool’s issue against the low-block.
Injuries to Sadio Mané and Philippe Coutinho also saw Firmino’s versatility exploited, as he was moved out wide. It seems that there will not be another striker coming into the club, after Solanke, so expectations for Firmino to play as a CAM may be unmet in the short-term, but as Klopp has expressed a desire for greater flexibility, do not be surprised if Firmino is utilised as a CAM, or as Lallana has been used in 2016/17, to bolster the midfield-attack link-up, weaponise Firmino’s pressing ability to greater effect, or to accommodate a striker upfront.
There may also be a challenge for Klopp and the medical team to manage Firmino. As Tite noted, Firmino struggled with his fitness as he was asked to play a majority of games, in one of the most physically demanding positions. Keeping Firmino fresh may prove to be the key to getting the best out of the Liverpool forwards around him – his intelligent movement and passing create both space and chances for his teammates, whilst his pressing leads to chances too.
The question for Firmino is, now that he has had two seasons in the Premier League, can he match the best goals and assists output he achieved at Hoffenheim, alongside contributing as a facilitator to his teammates. In some respects, Firmino may not actually need to score more goals, if he allows Mané, Coutinho and Salah to score as freely as they did last season, Liverpool will have goals aplenty, without relying on a single striker scoring 20 or more. However, his 16 goals and 11 assists in the 2013/14 Bundesliga season illustrate he has both the quality and capacity to improve upon his figures, so the challenge remains, nonetheless.
What is clear though, is that Firmino suits Liverpool to a tee, and is nigh on irreplaceable when it comes to fulfilling his exact function. With Liverpool facing perhaps its most important campaign in almost a decade, Firmino will have a pivotal role to play within it.