Roberto Firmino’s form noticeably went into a nosedive in January of 2020.
The trademark tactical discipline and high octane work-rate remained, but the Brazilian’s soft touch, penetrative passing, and calm head in front of goal disappeared somewhat.
The 29-year-old’s lack of goals — the former Hoffenheim attacking midfielder went almost the entire league campaign without scoring at Anfield, before netting against Chelsea in the penultimate home game of last season — was criticized by many, but there was more to it than that.
Firmino has never been prolific, owing to the fact he is a converted midfielder and not an attacker. What the Brazilian international is, though — or at least when he’s at the level seen between 2016 and 2019 — is a facilitator for others around him.
The number 9 — a shirt number that perhaps conflates what his function is for the team — is a facilitator, allowing those around him to profit from his work-rate, his selflessness, and his link play. It is no coincidence that two of the last three Premier League golden boot winners — Mohamed Salah, who won the gong outright in 2018, and Sadio Mane, who shared the honour with Salah and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang in 2019 — have played with Firmino.
But those attributes were conspicuous in their absence for the best part of the last year, as the bright toothed Brazilian went through a prolonged run of bad form. Perhaps it was inevitable, given Firmino’s work rate, his near-constant availability and the fact he is — more often than not — selected for his club and for his country in draining summer tournaments that a toll would be taken on his performances.
The form of new signing Diogo Jota, who became the first player in the Reds’ history to net in four consecutive home games at the start of their Liverpool careers, has lead to many fans calling for the Portuguese international to start in place of his Brazilian team-mate.
Firmino, however, gave a timely reminder of his qualities in the champions’ 3-0 victory over Leicester City at Anfield last weekend. The forward’s goal — a towering header from a James Milner corner — wrapped up the three points with four minutes remaining, but it was his overall showing that caught the eye.
His velvet soft touch, his intelligent manipulation of space — best seen when he found a pocket between the Foxes defence and midfield to slide a pass to Jota which lead to a shot on goal — and his passing play were all back to the levels of previous seasons.
The Brazilian almost scored another goal when, after dancing by Jonny Evans with a feint of his hips, he smacked the post with a low drive. On another occasion, when jostling with the Northern Ireland international for the ball in the box, he forced a header against the post and, from the ensuing melee of panic in the box, had a shot cleared off the line. The ball was, according to the goal-line technology, the tiniest of measures away from going fully over the line.
An element that worked in Firmino’s favour was the selection of Naby Keita and Curtis Jones in midfield. The duo, so comfortable with taking the ball amid traffic in the middle band of the pitch, freed up the Brazilian and meant he didn’t have to drop so deep to receive the ball and start the team’s attacks.
On many occasions in the past, Firmino’s role in the team has been so all-encompassing that’s had to simultaneously be the number 9, the number 10, and a central midfielder. But with Jones and Keita in the team, the 47 times capped Brazilian international didn’t have to act as the team’s sole initiator of attacks and he played well in that freedom.
With Thiago and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain to return — two players who share in common with Jones and Keita an ability to progress the ball creatively, although by different means — Liverpool will have more creative midfield options to free up Firmino.
Hopefully the Brazilian’s return to his best form starts here.