The Runner Sports

The Case For Roberto Firmino

When Liverpool’s management brought in 1899 Hoffenheim’s talented attacking midfielder Roberto Firmino for the gargantuan sum of 29 million pounds over the summer, it is safe to say some eyebrows were raised.  The large sum that was paid didn’t seem to match the potential or past production of the 24-year-old Brazilian.

Firmino was coming into the Premier League on the heels of several successful seasons on the middling Bundesliga club Hoffenheim and more than one pundit questioned the transfer.  The fee, rather than the actual talent of the player was the doubt in this case, as former Liverpool defender Markus Babbel called the fee “brutal.”  Babbel’s point was that with the huge fee comes outsized expectations as the 29 million pounds was the second highest ever paid by Liverpool.

Others around English soccer called the deal a “real coup” seeing as the deal was done at an early stage of the summer transfer window.

Certainly, whoscored.com match rating system loved the play of Roberto Firmino as every season, with the exception of his first in German soccer, he averaged a 7.2 rating or higher.  In Firmino’s final two seasons while with Hoffenheim, he scored or assisted on 44 goals.  That kind of production alone should have eliminated any doubt, especially on a club of Hoffenheim’s stature.

Then came the stifling beginning to Firmino’s Liverpool career under Brendan Rodgers.  With inconsistent substitution appearances mixed in around a handful of starts, Firmino couldn’t get his game going.  The struggles should come as no surprise as the attacking output during the end of the Rodgers era was pathetic.

Every match brought about lineup and often formation changes as Rodgers desperately fought to keep his job.  A host of mismatched players including the immobile Christian Benteke, Danny Ings, Jordan Ibe, and Divock Origi all attempted to blend with the established starters while never getting a solid run of matches to build chemistry.

Discontent was high at Liverpool amongst the fans and to some extent within the squad itself.  Brendan Rodgers was the savior who couldn’t incorporate new faces like Firmino after losing the likes of Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez.

Then, in stepped Jurgen Klopp and with him a high pressing system that Firmino seems built for.  Klopp prefers mobile players who consistently show a willingness to outwork their opponents rather than win by patient build up.  Many, including myself, thought it would take Klopp a summer transfer window to bring in his prototypical player, yet in hindsight, it seemed as if the Liverpool transfer committee brought Firmino in with Klopp in mind.

Firmino is perfect for the type of shapeshifting, pressing that is required out of the front four in Klopp’s system.  In this system, the players typically thought of as attackers are actually the most important defenders.  Immediately when possession is lost by Liverpool, the nearest two, or even three players need to swarm to the ball as quickly as possible.  Playing as a false nine, or in the hole as a number ten, Firmino can use his speed, size (5′ 11 1/2″) and strength to out muscle his opponents.

When Klopp took over he essentially had two options, because of injury, for the tip of his 4-2-3-1 and that was Benteke or Firmino.  Of course, Benteke quickly proved his lack of mobility was damaging because the entire system is based on high pressure everywhere.  Without the lead striker providing the first line of defense, teams can easily pick their pass all the way down the field and, more importantly, the pressure is designed to create turnovers in the offensive third.

Klopp switched Firmino to the number nine and when Daniel Sturridge became fit, back to one of the three attacking midfield spots and it proved to be a revelation.  Suddenly Firmino is no longer the high-priced flop that can hardly find the field.  Now, he can be seen flying in for a tackle, picking out a deft pass or crushing a shot on goal.

The defensive aspect of Firmino’s game is particularly impressive as he is totally committed to the Klopp playing style.  His constant pressure up the field yields dividends nearly every match and is reflected in the stats as Firmino averages 2.2 tackles per match per whoscored.com, one of the highest forward marks in the Premier League.  Many of those tackles lead directly to chances as they often come in, or near the opponent’s half, like this one:

 

Offensively, Firmino also adds another creative dimension to the attack with Philippe Coutinho.  At the beginning of the season, Coutinho was tasked with providing nearly all of the creative playmaking for Liverpool.  Now with Firmino, and to some extent Adam Lallana stepping to the forefront, Liverpool has gone from a very boring, low scoring club under Rodgers to an uptempo attacking unit under Klopp.

Firmino is not just a forward who can score goals, although he has a club-leading eight Premier League goals, but he can also thread a killer final pass to set up a scoring chance.  This past week’s Europa League match provides the perfect illustration for this, as Firmino somehow saw and executed a pass that not many around the world could.  The result was setting up a penalty call that led to the first Liverpool goal.

With the increasing likelihood that Firmino is able to reach the ten goal, ten assist threshold, is it time to start considering him for the year-end best eleven? He is ranked near the top ten in both goals and assists.  When combined with his defensive contribution and the late start to his true period of contribution, Roberto Firmino has been one of the best players in the Premier League since December.  It will be an interesting discussion if he is able to continue this form for the balance of the season.

John Harbeck

Ohio sports and all things soccer.If you like my writing follow me @JHarbeck5 on twitter

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