By Ritchie Slack (@Slack_9)
On Sunday night, Anfield witnessed the return of 2,000 fans singing more like an army of 200,000. They say you don’t know what you’ve got until its’s gone, and that was the case when millions of people watching Liverpool vs Wolves at home heard ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ being bellowed out across The Kop, sending shivers down the spines of everybody involved with Liverpool FC. It was a special moment for everybody, further compounded with the classy display of clapping the ‘taking the knee’ gesture in the BLM movement. Liverpool fans have had their critics in the past, but in this instance we showed the world who we are, we are Liverpool, this means more, this game belongs to everyone.
The return of the Anfield faithful wasn’t the only re-emergence of the night, it appears the resurgence of one Roberto Firmino Barbosa de Oliveira (also known as Bobby) was also inspired by the fans return.
There is no escaping the Brazilian ‘false 9’ has had a bit of a jaded spell since football resumed following a worldwide lockdown in March. Firmino was not his usual self, post-lockdown, sometimes failing to influence the games he played in, and at times he looked like a man overshadowed by the ruthless Mo Salah and relentless Sadio Mane. Liverpool fans were clearly becoming frustrated at the under par performances he was grinding out, albeit he capped the season off with his first home goal, in the last game of the season, and registered a total of 12 goals and 12 assists…
But, let’s get one thing straight, Firmino’s game is not all about goals. Goals are an added bonus to his armaments, which may sound strange to the casual fan considering he is a ‘centre forward’ and leading the attacking line of the Premier League champions and 2019 Champions League winners. The role Bobby plays is not an ‘advanced forward’ role, nor it is a ‘poacher’ role. Alas, Firmino plays a false 9/deep lying attacking role, at times even looking more like a 10 than a 9.
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Firmino does what no other player for Liverpool can do, he creates the spaces for Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and Diogo Jota to burst into, by pulling the oppositions’ centre backs out of position when they are trying to mark his fluent and constant movements. Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and even to an extend Salah, Jota and Mane have all played in ‘the Firmino role’ and never has it quite worked. The reason being perhaps is that their game IS all about goals and may not possess the selfless streak needed to play as the benefactor, rather than the recipient. They don’t naturally come deep to get the ball as they play off the shoulder of the last man to run through on goal, rather than pull their markers out of position to create space. It takes a certain individual to be able to do this, one who is intelligent, selfless and altruistic, to have to be able to carry the burden of others quoting his goals as a centre forward, rather than understand what his role is. Firmino has qualities in abundance and Klopp himself said he would ‘feel really embarrassed’ to list all of the qualities the 29-year-old possesses.
Many football followers have said over time that Firmino doesn’t get in to the ‘elite teams’ such as Bayern Munich, Barcelona, or Man City, as their strikers score more goals. This could hold some truth, but the way Liverpool set out their system to allow the goals to fly in from the flanks, I would argue that Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus would not get in to the Liverpool team or system either. Firmino is a different calibre of player, he is a runner, a creator, and always one moment away from producing genius. Whilst this is no insult or superciliousness towards the other great strikers mentioned, they could not/would not play the way Firmino does. Their game is about goals, and they are world class at scoring those goals, which is why they wouldn’t fit into the Liverpool system. They would not create the spaces or opportunities for others, they would want to goals themselves. Liverpool would rather have two regular goalscorers (Salah/Mane and now Jota) than one. You can find goal scorers and attacking poachers from most countries, Haaland, Messi, Ronaldo, Vardy, but you would struggle to find someone to replace Firmino (answers on a postcard please!) As a testament to the role in which Firmino plays, we have seen other teams adapt their style of play to mimic Liverpool and Firmino’s game. Tottenham Hotspur are playing Harry Kane in a deeper role and reaping the benefits. Kane is in the form of his life and his link up play with Son genuinely is a concern for Liverpool in the coming months, although I have a feeling they might just ‘do a Spurs’ come the business end of the season. Alexander Lacazette also drops deeper for Arsenal, creating spaces for Pierre Emerick Aubameyang to move into. Anthony Martial, at times, does the same for Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, or Bruno Fernandes to vacant the spaces he leaves, the Firmino Role is catching!
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Firmino’s identitiy as a selfless support act matches up with the statistical data I have found from last season. On xGBuildup (goal build up and contribution, which measure the expected goals of a player’s contributions without shots and key passes) Firmino’s number stands at 8.08 (meaning he produces 8 goal build ups per game); the nearest central attacker is Anthony Martial, on 4.97. Two years ago, Firmino stood at 12.63, higher than any winger, with Harry Kane the nearest centre-forward on a distant 7.96. This illustrates the influence Firmino has on this Liverpool side, that his work rate and his level of understanding what is expected from him is pure and elite, he is, as Klopp describes him, ‘the connector.’
Firmino has played 261 times for The Reds, scoring 80 goals and assisting 62, meaning he has 142 G/A. That’s 54.4%. Not bad for someone who doesn’t contribute enough in the final third! Let’s not get lost in the fact he doesn’t win golden boots like Salah (twice) and Mane (once) have done in the past three years, because without Firmino, they don’t win those awards either.
On the pressing system that Klopp favours and has established within LFC – it mainly starts from Bobby. It is important to note that Liverpool do not close down players, they close down the space that player has to pick a pass or run into. Anybody can press and run towards a player with the ball at their feet, and if you do this by running directly at the player, it opens up space for the player to pass the ball into. Firmino is far more clever in his press in the sense that he doesn’t just rush to the man, he closes down the options first, and then attacks the player with the ball when his options are expended. Firmino is the first player to close the space and pressurise the opposition when they have the ball. The heavy metal football that lives in Klopp’s (and now Liverpool’s) blood starts from the point of attack, to close the space to minimise passing opportunities. Firmino presses on average 20 times a game. When Firmino applies the press, Liverpool win back possession 21% of the time (according to the data collection site FBref.com). This means that Firmino wins the ball in areas where Liverpool are likely to score in, turning defence in to attack immediately in Liverpool’s final third. When Firmino presses, 1/5 times Liverpool turn the ball over. When Salah joins that press, we win the ball 50% of the time! In short, Firmino also acts as Liverpool’s first line of defence, as well as being a creator of 142 goals and assists… his game is more than what you think a traditional number 9 should be.
Sunday night saw the trickery, the mesmerising skill, the confidence to take on and succeed in not only one nutmeg, but two. Samba skills.
One of the highlights was his karate kick through ball he played to Sadio Mane, a move we are used to seeing from the Brazilian as a celebration, not one to use in an assault on goal! Perhaps Bobby Firmino just likes to play to the crowd as a show man and entertainer: someone who feeds and thrives off a crowd proudly singing his name? Either way, his performance was a joy to behold and hopefully he has rediscovered his form which has left beaming, bright smiles on the red half of Merseyside so many times before.
This may seem like a Firmino love-in, to some extent it is, but it is also a way to highlight what Robert Firmino brings to the Liverpool team; sometimes football is not about statistics and G/A rating, sometimes it is about recognition beyond that. If you have read this and are still in the mindset that Firmino is not the striker you expect him to be, or fail to see what Firmino does rather than what he doesn’t, to steal a phrase from Jurgen Klopp, “If you don’t see it, I can’t help you.”
Up the Reds. YNWA