Do Liverpool Need to Replace Firmino Up Top?

Do Liverpool Need to Replace Firmino Up Top?

A tough September-October period for Liverpool saw goals dry up, with both Coutinho and Sadio Mané sustaining injuries, as the team went through a challenging drop in form. With the attacking flair synonymous with Liverpool in recent years dissipating, Roberto Firmino’s place, or at least his role within the team has come into question – the idea was that with Firmino playing, Liverpool do not need a classic out-and-out striker, as he makes up for fewer individual goals through goal involvement, and creating space, chances and goals for Liverpool’s other forwards. But with some questionable performances throughout September and October, and then a strong recent cameo by the eager Daniel Sturridge, it’s certainly worth asking whether Liverpool need to replace Firmino upfront, or whether he can or should play somewhere else.

For this analysis, we’ll be looking at some of the figures mentioned in the most recent AI Under Pressure podcast, from @GagsTandon, @DanKennett and @SimonBrundish.

First off, we’ll be having a quick look at Firmino’s figures since 2014/15, and calculating his career averages from that, and after that, we’ll cross-reference them with his averages in particular positions.

AI Tees

If you would like to see the methodology to working out the weighted average, I shall be posting it on my Twitter page.

But next, we’re having a look at Firmino’s figures, season on season, by position – and rather than analysing just these statistics, they’ll be a point of reference for future use and the discussion below, which is based upon the debate on the Under Pressure podcast.

As we know, Firmino is underperforming this season, with his Non-penalty xG + xA per 90 below his averages for the past four seasons, but we need to look beyond that.

What is undeniable from these figures is that Firmino is a strong, consistent, competent forward, with an extremely impressive Non-penalty xG per 90 + xA per 90, but also that there are two key positions in which he plays well – as a CF or as a CAM.

But with regard to Firmino this season, there are patterns emerging, for one, Roberto Firmino is now shooting at a lower frequency than in previous seasons. In his last season at Hoffenheim, Firmino averaged 2.9 shots per game, and then in the following two seasons at Liverpool, he averaged 2.8 and 2.9 respectively: whilst this season, Firmino averages 2.5 shots per game, 0.4 down on his weighted average, across his career since 2014/15.

Firmino’s shots per game rate is dwarfed by that of strikers such as Sturridge and Kane, who averages 5 per game, and in this season Kane actually averages 6 per game.

This lower frequency of shots is reflected in Firmino’s Non-penalty xG per 90 too, which currently stands at 0.16 per 90, a huge decrease from the 0.28 (14/15), 0.32 (15/16) and 0.3 (16/17) rates. However, Firmino has not fallen off completely, with him making up some of that overall expected goal involvement (xGI) through working as a creator – with his xA and xA per 90 above his career average.

But even if Firmino was to return to the sort of form he displayed last season or the season before, is that enough for Liverpool to compete with its other top six rivals, all of whom have traditional goalscoring forwards, of whom you would expect to push past 20 league goals in a season (Agüero, Jesus, Kane, Lukaku, Ibrahimovic, Morata, Lacazette and Sanchez).

In the audio clip below, Dan Kennett describes how Firmino’s figures as a CF are most similar to that of Wayne Rooney and Christian Benteke, rather than the elite group of strikers aforementioned:

https://twitter.com/AnfieldIndex/status/925686737984253952

You can subscribe to the full AI Under Pressure Show on AnfieldIndex Pro for just £4.99 per month or £39.99 per year (includes weekly shows with Jan Molby, Peter Beardsley and more!)

Why then has Firmino’s xG dropped? One pattern that I’ve noticed across the season so far is that Liverpool are taking a greater number of shots from outside the box – and this is true of Firmino too – and with a greater number of shots from outside of the box compared to inside, the likelihood of a goal is smaller, hence the reduced xG.

2017/18

Shot zones Sh G NPG KP A xG NPxG xA xG/Sh xA/KP
Out of box 9 0 0 6 0 0.19+0.19 0.19+0.19 0.10+0.10 0.02 0.02
Penalty area 8 2 1 12 1 1.58-0.42 0.82-0.18 1.65+0.65 0.20 0.14
Six-yard box 3 1 1 1 1 0.31-0.69 0.31-0.69 0.94-0.06 0.10 0.94

Shot zones Sh G NPG KP A xG NPxG xA xG/Sh xA/KP
Out of box 32 2 2 31 1 1.17-0.83 1.17-0.83 0.88-0.12 0.04 0.03
Penalty area 65 7 7 43 6 8.00+1.00 8.00+1.00 6.52+0.52 0.12 0.15
Six-yard box 3 2 2 1 0 1.20-0.80 1.20-0.80 0.46+0.46 0.40 0.46

Shot zones Sh G NPG KP A xG NPxG xA xG/Sh xA/KP
Out of box 24 2 2 21 2 0.64-1.36 0.64-1.36 0.63-1.37 0.03 0.03
Penalty area 35 5 5 24 5 4.20-0.80 4.20-0.80 3.88-1.12 0.12 0.16
Six-yard box 4 3 3 3 0 2.30-0.70 2.30-0.70 0.89+0.89 0.57 0.30

Recent Career (14/15 onwards)

Shot zones Sh G NPG KP A xG NPxG xA xG/Sh xA/KP
Out of box 105 5 5 84 3 2.98-2.02 2.98-2.02 2.35-0.65 0.03 0.03
Penalty area 152 17 16 117 21 17.85+0.85 17.09+1.09 18.62-2.38 0.12 0.16
Six-yard box 21 9 9 9 2 7.87-1.13 7.87-1.13 3.97+1.97 0.37 0.44

Bearing in mind we are only ten league games into the season, these figures can be skewed, as we see with the percentage of shots taken inside the six-yard box by Firmino in the table below – and this is why I weighted the figures earlier, however, even without weighting these, we can see Firmino has a greater percentage of his shots outside of the box compared to his career average:

Shot Zones Shots Percentage Percentage change
Career 17/18 Career 17/18  
Out of box 105 9 37.8pc 45pc +7.2
Penalty area 152 8 54.7pc 40pc 14.7
Six-yard box 21 3 7.6pc 15pc +7.4
Total 278 20

The six-yard box percentage throws off the analysis somewhat, but these are the limits of a small sample size. What we will need to keep an eye on is whether these patterns persist, or revert to the norm as the season progresses.

The other key pattern that emerged though was the difference in goal involvement and productivity when Firmino plays out wide, compared to as a SS/CF/CAM. Indeed, Firmino’s xGI (xG + xA) per 90, as a CF, over the last three seasons has been 0.59, 0.63 & 0.59; whilst as a wide player his figures drop considerably to 0.35, 0.4 & 0.32. Hence, Firmino is actually 40pc less productive in terms of goal involvement when out wide; his averages when wide, noted above, pale in comparison to Salah (c.0.7) and Mané (0.6).

The most worrying aspect of Firmino’s game this season though is how his off-ball contribution i.e. distance covered, sprints, ball recovery, which used to top all metrics across Europe’s top five leagues, has dropped. This was supposedly the feature of his game that qualified him above other forwards, such as Daniel Sturridge, so now that these figures have dropped, what is the merit of him playing ahead of someone like Sturridge?

That being said, poor form is no reason to put on of Liverpool’s best players on the bench, especially if it does not provide a long-term solution for fitting in Liverpool’s best players simultaneously – that solution may come through playing Firmino in a different role.

Firmino’s figures as an SS/CAM are near identical to those that he has as a CF, so perhaps one answer to this issue could be to play him alongside a striker, like Sturridge; indeed, under Klopp Liverpool average 1.83 points per game, with Firmino starting, but 2.03 when both he and Sturridge start together (from 19 games), compared to Klopp’s average of 1.79 points per game. Furthermore, and rather peculiarly, with Daniel Sturridge playing, Liverpool’s defensive record improves – arguably because of the clinical threat he poses, which gives opposing teams second thought to commit offensively. When both play together, the average opposition xG, i.e. xG against LFC, is actually 0.61, giving Liverpool a 1.15 xG goal difference (excuse the tautology) per game,  whilst Liverpool’s xG per game is 0.4 lower without Daniel Sturridge.

In this respect, it’s hard to make a case for Liverpool not playing with Sturridge:

https://twitter.com/SimonBrundish/status/925700912340926464

But how can Liverpool fit Firmino either as a CF, SS or CAM, and Sturridge, when both are best centrally? Within a 4-3-3 it simply is not feasible, whilst a 4-4-2 diamond would likely leave Liverpool’s shaky defence even more exposed. The obvious choice then would be a 4-2-3-1, which Liverpool utilised when Klopp first came to Liverpool. But as with any formation, there are gains and losses; the 4-3-3 is meant to benefit the two centre-midfielders ahead of the pivot, and give them freedom to roam and contribute, however, Liverpool’s midfield contribution has been rather low, so if Liverpool are gaining little from their midfielders in the 4-3-3, who it’s meant to benefit most, maybe it makes sense to switch to a formation in which more players can benefit from.

For Liverpool and Klopp then, there is a choice that can be made. Whether to persist with Firmino, and his consistent but unremarkable goal output, and rely on him to facilitate and help both Mané and Salah fill in that goalscoring deficit, in comparison to rival sides, or instead to shift tactically, and refocus how Liverpool approach games in a tactical sense. For the short-term at least though, until Mané returns, it certainly makes sense for Sturridge to start with Firmino – albeit if only once a week to maintain his fitness – but when Mané, Coutinho and Lallana return during this month, it’s likely Liverpool will stick with the system that served them so well last season, when key players were fit and available. The issue is, when Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’ are all playing together, the team really does fly offensively, with all four contributing in one form or another, but the system struggles to bring the same rewards when missing one or two of the foursome. If goals do dry up again though, with this system, maybe it will be time for Liverpool to change tactics, and deploy Firmino centrally, behind Daniel Sturridge.

Firmino’s output this season may be poor so far, but most players would struggle if they lost players of Mané’s, Coutinho’s and Lallana’s quality supporting them. The central issue to this though is whether Liverpool score enough goals with Firmino in the team, but as just noted, Firmino plays at his best when he has the supporting cast around him, as do they with Firmino bringing them together. It’s a curious case and one that I do not have an all-encompassing answer to.

What I can say though, is that when Liverpool are missing key players, like Mané, it makes far more sense to play with two strikers, of which Firmino is a supporting one, rather than adding another more passive midfielder in their place.

In sum, Liverpool do not need to replace Firmino up top, conditional to him playing with the rest of the ‘Fab Four’, but without this condition, they should utilise his skills better, and bring in a striker to play alongside him, or in front of him – allowing him to contribute centrally, where he is best; as for a second striker to score and assist at Firmino’s rate would be nothing short of remarkable.