MOST DEFINITIONS OF A GENUINELY WORLD-CLASS CENTRE-FORWARD would assume a minimum of 30 goals per season. Europe’s elite strikers regularly hit that mark year in, year out, and are thus an exceptionally rare and precious commodity given their capacity to guarantee such prolific numbers.
The likes of Luis Suárez, Robert Lewandowski and Gonzalo Higuaín are probably the closest things to ‘pure’ centre-forwards in the modern game. Then there’s Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo who operate in their own universe, as predominantly wide forwards rather than orthodox number 9s – although both players have begun to play more centrally as they enter the twilight of their remarkable careers.
Other names considered in the top bracket of European forwards include Antoine Griezmann, Harry Kane, Sergio Agüero and the newly-formed Paris Saint-Germain triumvirate of Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar. They all vary in style and physique but are known for their phenomenal goalscoring ability.
One figure who rarely ever receives a mere mention in these conversations, however, is Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian recently switched to the number 9 jersey following the summer arrival of Mohamed Salah from Roma, a symbolic change which reflects his rise to prominence as Liverpool’s talismanic centre-forward.
Signed from Hoffenheim in July 2015 while competing for Brazil at the Copa América, Firmino arrived in the Premier League as something of an unknown quantity. Having been unearthed by Hoffenheim’s scouting system from Figueirense in 2010, he eventually joined the German outfit in January 2011 and by 2014 he was named the Bundesliga’s Breakthrough Player of the Season, with 16 goals – the fourth highest total in the league.
The deal to join Liverpool was worth up to £29 million with add-ons, which, at the time, was a hefty fee for a relatively low-profile player. Having played predominantly as a number 10 at Hoffenheim as well as operating out wide at times, Firmino was billed as an attacking midfielder upon his arrival on Merseyside.
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Under Brendan Rodgers, however, he was regularly shunted out wide and quickly became a peripheral figure in his early months at Liverpool, drifting around on the edge of games without being able to exert any influence of note. At first it was difficult to see exactly what kind of player Firmino was, as he struggled to form any kind of effective partnership with an ailing Christian Benteke.
It was the arrival of Jürgen Klopp in October 2015 which sparked Firmino’s Liverpool career into life, as the ex-Borussia Dortmund manager quickly made him the focal point of his attack, ahead of more orthodox strikers such as Benteke, Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge.
A first Liverpool goal in a 4–1 thrashing of Manchester City at the Etihad in November 2015 was followed by a brace against Arsenal, as Firmino began to grow into the red shirt and show glimpses of the talent he had displayed throughout his time in Germany.
His two goals and assist in a chaotic encounter at Carrow Road in January 2016 saw Firmino play a starring role in an all-time Premier League classic as Liverpool beat Norwich 5–4 with a 96th-minute winner from Adam Lallana. It felt like a key moment in Firmino’s career, playing with a new-found confidence and effervescence, and he has not looked back since.
Ten goals in his debut campaign saw Firmino finish the 2015/16 season as Liverpool’s top scorer in the league, also notching 10 assists to complete an impressive start to life in England.
Combining Brazilian technique and skill with German-bred industry and a relentless work rate, he had developed a reputation as a truly unusual type of footballer. Setting the tempo with his pressing from the front, Firmino’s sprints trigger his teammates to close down spaces and win possession back quickly. It’s an essential role in Klopp’s renowned gegenpressing system and one which he executes brilliantly.
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His intelligent movement and spatial awareness mean he is able to confuse and occupy several defenders at once, dragging them out of position and pulling them apart to create openings for his teammates. He’ll regularly steal possession in the final third of the pitch to create dangerous situations better than any forward in the league.
He’s the ultimate facilitator and manipulator of space, endlessly unselfish and capable of significantly enhancing his teammates’ performance level. Liverpool are a team built to be more than the sum of their component parts, rather than being reliant on one outstanding individual – a philosophy to which Firmino is absolutely integral. “He is the best player without scoring with how well he reads the game for the benefit of others,” Klopp told Goal.com in an exclusive interview.
The stats back it up, too. Firmino made more tackles (41) than both Gary Cahill (40) and Jan Vertonghen (33) in the Premier League last season, and only one fewer than Laurent Koscielny. A centre-forward who wins the ball back at a similar rate to top-level centre-halves; perhaps, in part, a result of his formative days as a teenager, when he began his career as a defensive midfielder at CRB in Brazil.
His numbers are even more telling when pitted against Europe’s elite forwards. He made more tackles alone than Messi (15), Lewandowski (9) and Ronaldo (3) combined and nine more than Griezmann who is renowned for his off-the-ball work. Firmino also wins significantly more aerial duels than any of the above players, as well as making far more interceptions.
In terms of chances created, Firmino’s 76 in 2016/17 was bettered only by Messi (78), and was more than twice as many as Ronaldo and Lewandowski combined (both 30), and 19 more than Griezmann. He’s also vastly superior to Suárez, Cavani, Agüero and Higuaín in all the stats mentioned. In terms of passes completed, only Messi (1,278) and Napoli duo Lorenzo Insigne (2,005) and José Callejón (1,320) bettered Firmino’s 1,223, indicating how heavily he is involved in general play, knitting together the attack while dropping deep and combining with the midfield.
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Of course, the obvious point to make is that Firmino’s goal tally is nowhere near the level of these players, but his function as a centre-forward in Klopp’s system is entirely different by nature – and he is the master of it. Always one step ahead of the game, his football IQ sets him apart from virtually any player in the Premier League. At times, he’s almost impossible to pin down and mark.
In 2016/17 he scored 12 goals in all competitions including crucial winning strikes away from home against West Brom and Stoke, pivotal moments in securing Liverpool’s top-four finish and return to the Champions League. So far in the current campaign, he’s already making the number 9 shirt very much his own with four goals, including textbook poacher’s finishes against Arsenal and Sevilla. His performance at Anfield against Hoffenheim in the second-leg of the Champions League qualifier was just about the complete all-round performance from a centre-forward.
With Firmino leading the line, flanked by the wicked pace of Sadio Mané and Salah, Liverpool’s front three is a mesmerising sight to behold when in full flow, each on the same wavelength and capable of causing havoc for any back line. More ruthlessness in front of goal would make them an even more frightening prospect.
Firmino’s overall numbers now stand at 27 goals and 22 assists in 98 appearances for Liverpool – averaging a direct goal contribution every other game. This is the season when he looks primed to step up to another level and reach 20 goals, which is more than achievable for a player of his ability.
He still remains somewhat under-appreciated both inside and especially outside of Liverpool, where the nuanced nature of his brilliance is seldom recognised to the extent it should be. With his sublime first touch and silky link-up play, along with his ability to set the tempo by pressing from the front, Firmino is able to effectively run games from the centre-forward position, something usually associated only with midfielders.
While his influence is blunted when deployed on the wing to accommodate a more traditional striker, Klopp has found the ideal niche to maximise Firmino’s rare talent. He might not be recognised as a truly world-class talent given the subtle, unorthodox genius of his style, but as the focal point of Liverpool’s fluid 4–3–3 system, he has redefined the role of the modern centre-forward in his own unique mould.