ROBERTO FIRMINO could well be the best-kept secret in European football.
It’s quite the hipster trait, the under-rated footballer; like loving that indie band that nobody else has heard of but if someone mentions their name you beam with unbridled joy, whilst also maintaining a possessive clutch on them.
You might have heard of their most famous single but you don’t appreciate the B-Sides and album tracks like I do.
Firmino is an under-rated footballer, as demonstrated in his lack of presence in the PFA Team of the Year and Player of the Year nominations.
If it weren’t for Mohamed Salah’s ‘Messi-esque’ season in terms of numbers then Firmino would be the new darling of the Kop. The Brazilian has scored 27 goals across all competitions, which is a remarkable output for a player who is not considered in most parts of the country (admittedly not Liverpool) as a real ‘number nine’.
The thing is, he is a ‘real number nine’ and a real number ten, in-fact, if we are going to use numbers and positions to describe footballers, maybe Firmino should be classed as a nine and a half.
He has the strength of your traditional English target-man, relentlessly out-muscling physical centre backs before winning possession. Refer back to his goal in Liverpool’s 4-3 win over Manchester City in January, where he overpowers John Stones before lofting a shot over Ederson, showing this strength in all its glory.
He has the mind-set of a poacher. Look back at how many ‘no-look’ goals the Brazilian has scored this season, so much so that the LFC Media team took the opportunity to announce the signing of his new contract with Firmino ‘not looking’ when signing that cherished document.
But to get into the position to literally not have to look before you put the ball into the back of the net shows poacher-like tendencies to get into those areas, to have the cojones to pull off that piece of skill three times is remarkable.
Firmino has the samba flair of your Brazilian superstar but it is his selflessness that has him revered by the Kop, and maybe that’s just why he is not thought of in the same bracket as Sergio Aguero, Antoine Griezmann or Gonzalo Higuain for example, in terms of clinical number nines in European Football.
It didn’t start well for Firmino at Liverpool. His £29 million move from Bundesliga side Hoffenheim in the summer of 2015 brought with it expectation and almost desperation. Firmino joined in the summer after a horrendous campaign at Anfield. Liverpool’s attacking options the season before consisted of Rickie Lambert, Fabio Borini and Mario Balotelli after the departure of Luis Suarez, followed by Raheem Sterling’s move to Manchester City.
Liverpool fans laid so much hope on Firmino coming in and taking over the mantle of Suarez but he definitely didn’t hit the ground running.
Having to adjust to a new country and into a new team always brings new difficulties and challenges. The Brazilian was also expected to heavily influence a side that was floundering, awaiting the final days of then manager Brendan Rodgers. The Ulsterman failed to find a position for Firmino, which didn’t help the Brazilian’s transition into the Premier League, with one outing at Old Trafford seeing Firmino operating in a right wing-back role.
Then came the arrival of Jurgen Klopp. And Firmino’s Liverpool career really began. Klopp is regularly praised for his impact on players such as Andy Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but his development work with ‘Bobby’ is nothing short of remarkable.
Klopp was a manager who understood and could see the qualities the player possessed from his time managing Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga.
Two well-taken goals in a 3-3 draw against Arsenal at Anfield in one of Klopp’s first games in 2016 was the Kop’s first glimpse of the real Roberto Firmino.
It became more and more evident that Liverpool had a player on their hands; a player that could produce that ‘something out of nothing’.
But it is his selflessness that most defines Firmino’s game and perhaps is the trait that deprives him of the same headlines and plaudits that his Egyptian teammate enjoys.
His quick and incisive link-up play with Salah and Sadio Mane, as well as with on-running midfielders, are key to the team’s attacking profligacy. Dropping deep to create space for others to exploit, Firmino also takes on the role of the ‘false nine’, a role most famously used by Spain and their Catalan giants Barcelona.
This selflessness in dropping back to link-up as well as win the ball back allows Salah to stay forward with little requirement to track back. Without Firmino, would Salah be as effective?
Firmino ended the season with more assists (7) and completed the most through balls (17) in the Premier League than any other centre forward while also netting 15 goals.
He also won more tackles (65) than Arsenal centre-back Shkodran Mustafi, Manchester City’s holding midfielder Fernandinho and Tottenham Hotspur’s PFA Team of the Year centre-back Jan Vertonghen.
Firmino is a false nine, complete nine, number ten and ball winning number six all in one.
He is the complete centre forward.
The perfect combination of samba flair and German engineering.
Credit to @SG8_TheKop for the inspiration towards the focus and title.