Premier League

Is it time to admit Roberto Firmino is no longer the answer?

Liverpool’s No. 9 is struggling – but is it simply a dip in form or is this now the Brazilian’s level?

9:00am on Monday 19th October 2020
Nicholas Hughes

Roberto Firmino has long been hailed as one of Liverpool’s many heroes and one of the forefathers of the Jurgen Klopp revolution at Anfield.

A vital cog for some time in a team that has lifted the Champions League and the Premier League, the Brazilian has received his fair share of plaudits for the role he plays in the Reds’ system.

Whether he be known as a false-nine, a defensive forward or as a no.10 by nature, the fact of Firmino’s role is that he is Liverpool’s ‘connector’ and the brunt of the goalscoring responsibility falls on shoulders elsewhere.

Analytics experts and large portions of the media have held onto this notion of the Brazilian being the facilitator for a long time, but now might be the time to drop it.

29 yrs - S (C) - Liverpool
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Firmino is still a striker, and strikers are supposed to score goals. Last season was his least prolific at Liverpool, even less so than his first season when it took him 10 games to score his first goal and another eight to add to his tally.

The nine-goal haul was almost half of his Expected Goals (xG) ranking of 16.69 despite 2.91 shots per 90, being his most in a season at the club bar 2016/17 when it was 2.92, so barely any difference there.

But while his eight assists last season were a career-high in a Premier League season – and two assists so far this season isn’t bad, either – his passing play and involvement in the build-up has waned over the last 12 months.

The Brazilian had his lowest numbers in a Liverpool shirt for passes, touches and dribbles per 90 across the league campaign, while key passes per 90 have been lower across the last two seasons than in any of his three previous seasons.

Interestingly as well, Firmino’s pressing and defending statistics have decreased markedly over the past two seasons compared to his early campaigns in red, but this could be indicative of a slight tweak in the way the team presses.

Firmino’s role has diverted from being the point of the press and closing down the centre-backs or goalkeeper to essentially marking the opposition’s deepest midfielder while the wingers apply the pressure on the first line.

By the same token, his role in the attack has changed as Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane have emerged as two of the best goalscorers in the world, but for a centre-forward his numbers are simply too low.

To put it in perspective, of the starting centre-forwards on each Premier League team, Firmino ranked just 15th in goalscoring, equal with Jordan Ayew. Only Callum Wilson, Wesley, Joelinton and the Sheffield United duo of Oliver McBurnie and Lys Mousset scored less.

Wilson was relegated with Bournemouth, Wesley’s Aston Villa survived by a point with the Brazilian having missed almost half of the season with a cruciate ligament tear, while Newcastle and Sheffield United were two of the five lowest scorers all season.

It is curious to see where the Reds go with Firmino now. The no.9 has just turned 29 with 25-year-old Takumi Minamino and Diogo Jota, who turns 24 in December, behind him in the pecking order and pushing for a starting position.

Rhian Brewster’s sale is an intriguing note as well with the three-year buy back option that could come into effect should the club see fit, and names such as Patson Daka have been loosely thrown around the rumour mills since the summer.

The idea of replacing Firmino does remain a fairly unlikely one at this point in time and would be a bit on the reactionary side, but the fact that seed is being sewn at all says a lot about a player that has played more than anyone else under Klopp and has seemed untouchable as Liverpool’s striker.

With 34 Premier League games to go and an entire Champions League campaign, there is still plenty of time for Firmino to pick up the slack and the development of the Liverpool squad could play into his hands.

With Thiago still to be integrated into the team and Jota and Minamino providing quality competition, the attacking burden is being further shared around.

That flexibility could see Klopp change system to a 4-2-3-1, perhaps allowing Firmino a more creative role as a no.10 behind the recognised striker which may be a better fit to his qualities.

This Liverpool team has to be broken up eventually, and it looks like Georginio Wijnaldum will be the first to go when his contract expires at the end of this season.

If he fails to overturn this poor run of form and is overtaken by rivals or potential new signings, Firmino might just be next out of the exit gates.

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