For much of the past year, Roberto Firmino has suffered a downturn in form. That much is undeniable.
But many people — because of committing wholeheartedly to this narrative — have now not recognized that in the last month the Brazilian international has returned to his old, sharp self.
The bright toothed number 9 netted in the win versus Leicester and, crucially, nodded in the winner versus Spurs in the recent top of the table clash at Anfield.
It’s not only the return to goals that marks Firmino’s return to form. His link-up play, his ability to play in tight areas, and his velvet first touch — hallmarks of his best football at Anfield — have all been razor-sharp of late and the Reds as a whole have benefited.
The Brazilian cause has been helped in a huge fashion by the emergence of Curtis Jones in the Reds’ midfield. The young Scouser has been in imperious form of late and his technical quality, combined with his hunger for the ball — even in the most compressed areas of the field — has taken a lot of creative responsibility off Firmino’s shoulders.
Forget his shirt number, the Brazilian’s role within Liverpool’s team is — first and foremost — to link midfield and attack, to press relentlessly, and to selflessly provide the ammunition to Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
That is a huge burden for any player to carry and Firmino — doubtlessly also due to the fact that his high work rate and durability, the 29-year-old is hardly ever injured, and near-constant selection for both club and country — seemed to be overwhelmed by these responsibilities for parts of last season and some of the current campaign and looked jaded at times.
Step forward Jones. The Brazilian’s upturn in performance has coincided with the 19-year-old’s emergence as a bonafide first team midfield option. Taking a lot of responsibility to be the team’s creative spark off his shoulders, Jones has allowed Firmino to become more of a goal threat.
In the 2017/2018 season, the former Hoffenheim stars finest in Liverpool red, Firmino benefited greatly from the presence of his compatriot Philippe Coutinho in the side. With the two Brazilians and Mane and Salah in the lineup, the Anfield team average a goal every 23 minutes as their attack, especially in Europe, blasted all before them.
Although the Reds, and this could be due to the fatigue that a crazily compacted season has lead to, aren’t as prolific this season, there is a similar amount of threats on the pitch with Jones — as well as the returning Thiago and Naby Keita — keen to impose himself on the game in an attacking sense.
Previously, Jurgen Klopp has elected to pick more defensively diligent midfield’s — not that Jones, Thiago, Keita or Alex Oxlade Chamberlain shirk any work off the ball or in the tactical discipline stakes — with Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum often picked to provide coverage for Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson to express themselves further up the pitch from their full-back berths.
But this approach, even if it has worked spectacularly, made Liverpool a touch predictable, in the words of assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders. Teams — such as Atletico Madrid and Napoli — would commit to marking the Reds’ full-backs and this would neuter a lot of their creative thrust and that put extra onus on Firmino to carry the goal manufacturing can, as well as do everything else assigned to him. Predictably, he was unable to consistently fulfill all these functions and his form slackened.
The signing of Thiago was made to give the Reds an unpredictability and to lift the pressure off Firmino and the full-backs. When the Spaniard was injured in the Merseyside derby in October, Jones stepped seamlessly into the void and has provided an elite level of ball progression, dribbling, and creativity.
With Jones, Thiago, and Keita all capable of pulling the strings, Liverpool, and especially the freed up Firmino, will benefit.