Here's an exaggeration that is a lot milder than it might, at first, seem: Roberto Firmino is Liverpool's best player. Not the most talented, though probably. Not the most productive, though in some ways yes and, over the longer term, probably in most ways. Not because of the hair, though it is quite fly, and he likes to experiment in a way that just jibes well with us in this post-Raheem Sterling world we're living in.
There is something more to it than that, though. Something simple, and tangible, and easy to see. Something we often talk about in a way that makes it seem much more common than it actually is. But hold that thought.
Because here's another exaggeration that is a lot milder than it might, at first, seem: Christian Benteke is Liverpool's worst player. Not the least talented, though that talent gets way overblown. Not the least productive by a long shot, though in some ways yes. Not because of the hair. It lacks imagination, sure, but a unification of form and function can be beautiful.
There is something more to it than that, but it isn't all that straight forward. It's hard to wrap one's head around, though critiques tutted his way are often couched as simple solutions. It's actually so complicated that the man currently charged with figuring it out, Jürgen Klopp, might be running out of any fixes. At least fixes that don't include consequential lengths of time, patience, hard work, and a break glass in case of emergency solution that only comes during summer transfer windows. Christian Ben-takin all the air out of the room with this one, folks.
Here's what we know for sure: the ball is round and spins. Passes lead to touches, with runs in between endless circles. The same set of mitts fortify a punch one moment and soften a cradled grip the next. Limbs move in drilled mechanics, through set pieces, and along choreographed lines.
But all that is just structure enabling the fluid, mercurial genius that happens in between. Those are the magic runs, the flicks of hips, and audacious touches. Those are the yelps and squeaks, tears and jumbled cacophonies of rhythm, cheer, yell, song, cry, whistle, and howl. Sudden silence with the rasping scrape of a net on a ball, or the ringing spank of a ball on a bar. We know these things sum up to football, and we know it's a game that both Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino play preposterously well.
So, why the distinction between the two? If we are ready to cede that both Liverpool forwards can play so well, where do we get off saying one is better while the other is worse? Because in this moment, for this Red club of Liverpool, we have ourselves a pickle of a problem: Liverpool must score goals and they are not. Not enough of them, anyway. Not an amount you would expect having spent £61.5 million on a pair of goalgetters.
Among a feast of footballing gifts, Roberto Firmino's simplest, most important trait is awareness. He is a two-footed, easy striding, swiftly balanced, robustly framed, skyscraping vision of a footballer. But he'd be half the player he is--and half the player he projects to be--if it wasn't for his ability to constantly read and rapidly process the happenings compounding at lightning speed all around him on the pitch.
He'd be markedly less dangerous if it wasn't for this cool acknowledgement of the moment, on and off the pitch, leading up to and surrounding the game. Knowing that the first goal against Arsenal needed the punctuation of a yellow card, but understanding that the rest of the game had to be about discipline, no matter how many faces were melted with that second starscraper.
But we said it was tangible, so what does that look like? It's a look. Actually, it's multiple looks. It looks like constantly looking around, all the time. On the ball, off the ball, about to receive a pass, about to deliver one, or gazing at one from across the pitch. In transition or in the box. Head on a fucking swivel. If there is one skill that should put to bed any doubts about how brightly Roberto Firmino will shine in Red, it is his ability to play with his head up, and see everything that is happening. At the level Firmino demonstrates it, it is one of the rarest traits a footballer can develop.
You've seen the clip, but now watch specifically for how many times you can see #11 pointedly looking around. It'd be almost like a tick, if it wasn't so purposefully employed. Our favorite moment is between 3:53-3:55.
Break starts with Firmino receiving possession with his back to a defender he has already seen is coming. As the ball starts coming to Firmino, Emre Can shows for the ball. The German international has been staring in one direction the entire time: directly at the ball. Mentally, Firmino has already played beyond the encroaching defender with the give and go he's about to start with Emre. He pips it to #23, and slips his mark in one swiveling motion. Then this funny thing happens: Emre receives the apparent apple of his eye, and just can't take his eyes off of it. It's a ball! At his feet! What he always wanted!
Right as the clip goes to 3:55, you see Firmino take another scanning glance to register what they've got set up against them further forward, then back to Emre, still waiting on that pass back for the one-two that he had started. He will be waiting for a while.
The clip edits it out, but Emre holds that possession for far too long, and waits for defenders to get far too close before moving it on. It's emblematic of his possessional game, and it's what gets him in trouble more often than not. He's not a slow man, in fact he can be rather fast. But he appears so cumbersome at times. And he's always getting nipped at, or starting his pass or shot motion just too late, allowing lanes to close.
You'll never see Firmino in those sorts of self imposed situations. Sure, misplaced passes, or rushed touches will happen. Turnovers will happen, the guy isn't flawless. But he's regularly two steps ahead of the play he is making. Always with the little looks, seeing things as they are and will be.
What's interesting about this heady streak of ability that Firmino effortlessly employs is that you have to use a fair bit of contextual awareness in considering the plight of Christian Benteke: Liverpool Striker. It's not the one thing with Benteke, it never has been that way. It's the constant combination of variables that have built up so much inertia that it is getting hard to imagine things ever slowing down long enough for the guy to get a hard reset on his vie en rouge.
Consider this: two months after Brendan Rodgers is confirmed as Liverpool manager, Christian Benteke signs for Aston Villa amidst rumors of interest from much more prestigious European clubs. Over the following couple of seasons Benteke becomes one of the most prolific goalscorers in England, making a particular habit of roasting Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool sides. Luis Suarez stays to bite some folks; Liverpool go close to a title. Luis Suarez leaves to bite some folks; things dry up in the forward end of Rodgers' Reds. The Antrim man is on the prowl for a striker.
With money to burn and fresh images in his mind of the Kinshasa-born Belgian international blasting firestarters into Simon Mignolet's net, Rodgers goes hard for the player. £32.5 million and an alleged agreement to also take on a certain £29m Brazilian forward hard. Then wretched teamwide form, a locker room growing increasingly unresponsive to Rodgers' prodding, and injuries leave Benteke with a stop-start beginning to his Reds career.
Some worldies go in for the lad, but the attack is anything but free flowing in a side that does very little naturally across the board. And so the biggest, loudest backer Benteke had at the club is gone, and in comes a German Messiah who has all of Redkind by the short and curlies with this new style of play: gegenpressing. Only the issue is Benteke doesn't press, and he's not the best passer, and sure he's fast but he's never played a system that forces him to think fast, while playing fast, while pushing his on ball skills to their absolute brink.
And the goals come here and there, but generally speaking things are labored, in particular with that £29m Brazilian bloke. Then comes that Manchester City game. Bobby keeps getting closer with those long range shots, one of which is bound to go in. Then it does against Arsenal in one of the most entertaining games of the entire English Premier League season.
Liverpool are having a hell of a game, scoreline be damned. And then Benteke comes on, and it's like cold molasses getting spread on untoasted iron kids bread. You know what's going to happen, but that first spread is still so ugly it's a bit shocking. Labored attempts to smooth things over. Dropping deep and wide to receive the ball and play it in to Lallana--that'll definitely work. You can watch Firmino start to check out a little bit, just like the kid who should have been bumped up a grade, but now sits in the back row doodling a promising academic year away. Bored. Who can blame him?
And, sure, Benteke played the big, looping header that led to Joe Allen's neatly side-footed equalizer. He deserves his plaudits for that one. But lets not pretend like Klopp didn't have to remind Benteke to play like Benteke by introducing Steven Caulker into the game as his strike partner. Benteke is so confused about how he fits in this Liverpool attack that he is desperately showing how he can do all of the things he doesn't need to do and none of the things he does need to do. Effort is increasing, and to the guy's credit, some goals will come. It's not all black and white, see, it's just there's too much artificial muddling going on with the grey.
Context. Awareness. Knowing not only oneself, but everyone. Knowing what the telling moment is going to be two beats before it gets there. Seeing the game. Christian Benteke? None of that.
The big Belgian is a really impressive mover--for a big guy. He is a damn good passer--for a target man. Benteke looks great in possession--for a guy who earns his keep skying for slight touches on the ball with his head.
It's not that this guy isn't an absurdly talented, physical beast of a player. It's that we've spent so long convincing him that all of his weakest attributes are actually quite strong that we've forgotten what makes him a useful weapon to begin with. The simple thing has become complicated. The easy path is blocked with flawed fixes. And all the while, Roberto Firmino is just sitting there, wrapping up expert level sudoku books with his left foot, while conducting an orchestra with his right.
Firmino is Liverpool's best player because his best is at home in the sharpest, most fractal iteration of modern attacking football. His best makes this entire team strive for a collective greater than its parts. Christian Benteke is Liverpool's worst player because his best makes Liverpool's collective plunge down into a level of turgid, self flagellating football that harbors no place for genius fluidity. And it creates doubt. At least we know that Simon Mignolet is going to faff up that clearance. With Benteke, what is up anymore? Does anyone really know what's going down?
This season is running on dying embers of hope. It is madness to continue slapping the leeches of Benteke's game onto the swollen limbs of this offense when Firmino is over there offering cellular reparation therapies and proliferating gut flora. Feed the big guy as much as you can, sure, but it's time for the not fuckin around plan here, Kloppo, and that plan rocks a mohawk up top and two ones on his back.