Is there any other player like Roberto Firmino in world football? I know; it might seem a strange question to ask – after all, no one knew Roberto Firmino was a player like Roberto Firmino until…well, until a certain German coach arrived at Anfield and made a central striker of him.
Of course, that tag – central striker – doesn’t quite do him justice. It simply cannot capture the diverse attributes the 26-year-old Brazilian brings to this Liverpool side. Neither fish nor fowl….or better still, both fish and fowl. One part: pressing dervish, one part: creative force. One part: goal scorer, one part: first line of defence.
A player just as comfortable coming short for the ball as he is sprinting in behind to wreak havoc. Just picture a player blessed with all the subtle guile and trickery of a Mesut Ozil bombing around with the work ethic of a peak Gennaro Gattuso.
He brought all those qualities to bear yet again last Saturday, contributing to all three goals as Liverpool grabbed a club record 13th consecutive Premier League win after a dominant display at Burnley. The first, from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross required a lucky deflection off the unlucky Chris Wood, but Firmino had been involved in the build-up as Liverpool broke from deep following a Burnley set piece.
Liverpool’s second goal came from Firmino’s interception of Ben Mee’s wayward pass, and a superbly timed, perfectly weighted through ball for Mane to slot past Nick Pope. The third was even more impressive: Firmino again dropped deep to collect Joël Matip’s clearance, sent Salah off with a superb curled pass and then arrived at the edge of the Burnley box to smash a low drive in after Salah had cut back in from the flank.
It was a Man-of-the-Match showing from a player who has started the season in perhaps the best form of his career. Salah and Mane may take the plaudits, but there is no doubt now that Bobby Firmino is the beating heart of Liverpool’s electric attack.
It wasn’t always so, of course. When Klopp took the reins from Brendan Rodgers in October 2015, Firmino was just finding his feet at his new club. Few if any fans knew exactly what he was supposed to bring to the team. An attacking midfielder at Hoffenheim, Rodgers stuck him out on the flank for a best forgotten visit to Old Trafford. There were already doubts about his ability to cope with the physicality of the Premier League – early injury worries did nothing but perpetuate that notion,
Then Klopp arrived, made Firmino first choice at centre forward – at the expense of the more orthodox, less mobile Christian Benteke – and that was that. The Brazilian blossomed and despite scoring his first Liverpool goal in November, he would finish that season with 10 Premier League goals.
Goals aside, his energy, mobility, close control and unselfish passing fit right in with Klopp’s favored high pressing, rapid attacking game and his combination with Mane and Salah is now considered one of the most potent in world football.
Firmino clearly scores fewer goals than his strike partners but his goal scoring record – and ability – is often underrated. How else to explain the constant clamour amongst some Liverpool fans for a “proper number 9”?
For one thing, Firmino has scored in the double digits in each of his four seasons in England. Mane is considered the better finisher yet, prior to his Golden Boot-winning 22 goals last season, he had never scored more than 14 goals in any of his first four seasons in the Premier League.
Also worth noting is this: Liverpool’s front three scored a combined 42 Champions League goals over the past two seasons. Salah and Mane predictably lead the way with 15 and 14 goals respectively, but Firmino hit 14 goals as well, six of them in the knockout rounds. Considering his other contributions to Liverpool’s play and his selfless approach to goal scoring, that is a very decent record indeed.
He showed that selfless trait again when coming off the bench in the Super Cup against Chelsea a few weeks ago. Liverpool had looked listless until he entered the fray and set up two goals for Mane. The first goal was particularly telling; Firmino could have shot at goal, or attempted a lob over the advancing Kepa Arrizabalaga, but he chose to lay on a better opening for his teammate.
It was the right decision – Mane was wide open – but it’s hard to imagine any other Number 9 in the game passing up such an opportunity.
But there is one particularly surprising stat that speaks to the heart and desire that Firmino brings to Klopp’s team. Did it ever strike you that Firmino scores a lot of goals from within the six yard box? Well, it turns out that the Brazilian scores more tap-ins than any other Liverpool player. Indeed, according to this table from Opta only four Premier League players have scored more six yard box goals than Firmino in the last three seasons.
That wouldn’t be a big deal but for the fact that Firmino plays much deeper than almost anyone else on that list. These are almost exclusively pure goal-poachers. “False nines” don’t get tap-ins, do they? This one does. In fact, as with that third goal at Burnley, many of those tap-ins start with moves initiated by or involving Firmino!
Take Liverpool’s third in a 3-0 win at Watford last season: Firmino clears a Watford corner kick with a header in Liverpool’s box…..then arrives in Watford’s box 10 seconds later to head home after Mane’s shot is saved by Ben Foster. How can a player so heavily involved in build-up play, a player often starting so far away from the opponents goal, a player not blessed with the blistering pace of his strike partners; how can such a player score so many tap-ins? Here’s what Klopp had to say after another typical Firmino finish at Brighton back in 2017: “Bobby gets there because he wants to get there”
Desire. Add that to the selfless team-first attitude, tactical acumen, positional awareness, technical ability and tons of energy and you get Bobby Firmino, Liverpool’s Brazilian talisman.