It’s often said that Roberto Firmino makes Liverpool tick – but his clock turns far too infrequently nowadays.
As our title challenge turns into a fight for the top four, some have questioned whether the passage of Bobby’s Anfield time is up.
It’s not, but things have to change. He’s too good a footballer to warrant an exit. Firmino is 29-years-old, but he’s always relied on his football brain and not the speed of his legs. He should actually be coming into his prime right now – akin to Dennis Bergkamp (the original false 9?) in 2003/04 – who at 34 – dictated the attacks for Arsenal’s onrushing Invincible forwards Thierry Henry, Robert Pires et al – from an often static position.
Liverpool’s barren, seemingly season-defining run, started on December 27th v West Brom.
The previous week, Liverpool annihilated Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, scoring seven goals and leading every post-match pundit to declare us champions elect.
Firmino scored two exceptional finishes and registered an assist, to boot. He purred in South London. So did Liverpool.
The Brazilian played with a smile on his face from start to finish and had fans off sofas nationwide. When he shines like that, he’s incomparable to anything else in the Premier League – because his touch his exquisite, his flair and vision unrivalled; he exudes confidence and runs like a man-possessed to send opponents into a frenzy. No other forward in England can do all of those things at the same time and his style epitomises Liverpool’s doctrine, ‘our identity is intensity,’ as coined by Pep Lijnders.
The problem is that right now, when Bobby is off, which he usually is, it affects his attacking team-mates, who have to create something out of nothing for us to get on the scoresheet. (See Mo Salah’s opener v West Ham.) He has no intensity, and neither do we.
Firmino is the side’s offensive lynchpin. His ability to drop deep, pick up the ball on the turn and unselfishly feed Salah and Mane the ball in half-spaces was as identifiable to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool as the bombarding fullbacks. Neither is happening right now.
Salah and Mane rarely interplay with each other in tight spaces because they’re coming off opposite wings. Firmino is the link-man, the space-creator, the one-twoer and crucially, the one who isn’t fussed about his goal tally to the benefit of his team-mates.
But while Firmino has never been clinical bar his 2017/18 campaign in which he got 27, and isn’t scoring many now, he’s not doing the other stuff that defines him either.
Jurgen Klopp famously once said that, “Mo Salah, world class, but not every day. Sadio Mane, world class, but not every day. Roberto Firmino, world class, pretty much every day,” but this is frankly no longer the case.
Of Liverpool’s past 12 games, Firmino has properly turned up on five occasions. We won four of those and were beaten by Manchester United in the FA Cup in the other. In the other seven, in which he did little, we lost four, drew three and scored just twice.
We rely on Firmino as the fulcrum of our open-play attack but he (like many others, it has to be said) has simply not been on it consistently.
Let’s look at the examples in more detail:
Liverpool 2-1 Tottenham
Liverpool win. Firmino last minute winner after an exciting attacking performance. Bobby: Man of the Match.
Crystal Palace 0-7 Liverpool
Liverpool win. Bobby: Man of the Match with two goals and an assist and a bucket-load of genius.
Liverpool 1-1 West Brom
No goals, no assists. Missed big chance at the end.
Newcastle 0-0 Liverpool
No goals, no assists. Missed open goal in second-half. Did create chances for Mo Salah, whose finishing was off.
Southampton 1-0 Liverpool
No goals, no assists.
Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United
No goals, no assists. No intensity.
Liverpool 0-1 Burnley
No goals, no assists, although only played 33 minutes. Didn’t inject any ideas into our attack.
Manchester United 3-2 Liverpool
Liverpool lost, but looked back to our usual selves offensively. Firmino registered two assists for Mo Salah and zipped about the final third.
Tottenham 1-3 Liverpool
Liverpool win. Firmino scores. Back to his and our best.
West Ham 1-3 Liverpool
Liverpool win. Firmino assists. Lovely second-half performance.
Liverpool 0-1 Brighton
No goals, no assists. Even less intensity.
Liverpool 1-4 Manchester City
No goals, no assists.
Liverpool never relied on our midfielders to make chances during our two jaw-dropping Premier League seasons – it was either the fullbacks, rapid counter-attacks, set-pieces and interplay between the forwards.
The fullbacks are off-colour, knackered and affected by slow ball in midfield. Teams know we counter-attack and guard against it. We don’t score from set-pieces anymore because all our players over 6ft’ are injured, and the interplay between the forwards has vanished….
Firmino is not solely to blame for the lack of interplay, but his importance to our fluidity and confidence is so vital that when he’s having an off-day (and you can pretty much tell from minute 15 onwards if this is the case), Liverpool do, too. Salah actually plays quite well when Mane isn’t about but struggles without a proper Firmino doing proper Firmino things around him.
So, what’s happened to Bobby?
Loads of things. He’s arguably put in more physical work than anyone during the past three years and his body could be feeling the effect. The same is potentially happening with Andy Robertson right now, too.
The fact there are no fans at games feels like it affects him more than others. He’s a showman. He tries things to make people smile – but the magician has nobody to show his magic.
“I wouldn’t say we are depending upon the fans but it makes a lot of difference playing without them. It’s an incredible feeling playing in front of our fans within that atmosphere that they create for us. They’re definitely a 12th man on the pitch,” he said just yesterday.
And finally, he’s playing with a bunch of team-mates in the same position! Tired, without confidence and mentally fatigued from three years of having to hit top level every week to achieve the dream…
But Firmino is so good; so unique – that when he’s been more like himself in the past month – so have Liverpool. When Bobby shines, we shine.
How do we fix it?
Taki Minamino arrived to take the burden off Firmino, but for reasons we’ll probably never know (other than him probably not being good enough) Klopp didn’t fancy him. As Divock Origi plays on the left for Liverpool, and must depart in the summer, there is nobody else to play Bobby’s role. Salah can play centrally, but his game is completely different to Firmino’s.
We obviously need a new centre-forward before 2021/22. Someone who can drop deep, hold the ball up, link with Salah and Mane and preferably, score goals! That player sounds expensive – but likely essential. There’s also a theory that we could bring in a Jack Grealish type, a player who does his creating from a no.10 position – allowing Salah, Mane and Diogo Jota to run on in front of him. Our shape would change, but perhaps so would our predictability.
And perhaps this role would equally suit Firmino, who’s never been a finisher, as he enters his thirties.
Right now, Firmino and about six others could do with a big rest, to flush the physical and mental fatigue – but it’s the most important part of the season and it’s not going to happen.
Firmino needs to know how important he is to us. For much of the past two months he cuts a peripheral figure in the final third. Let’s see him fight, try his tricks, make his strange runs that centre-backs can’t pick up and get Mane and Salah running beyond him.
Bobby’s brilliance is a huge part of why we won the Champions League and the Premier League. We need a few more reminders of it if we’re to get out of 2020/21 intact.