Last night’s thriller against Leeds United had winners and losers that were aptly identified by fellow TLO contributor Mark Kastner. Beyond the usual suspects, though, there was one undercurrent amongst many Liverpool fans that didn’t make it on to many post-match lists – is Roberto Firmino okay?
The whispers were heard and seen mostly on Twitter, but they have been around for a while when it comes to Liverpool’s non-standard number nine.
Beloved to the squad, to his country and to most of the Liverpool fanbase, Firmino is most frequently misunderstood by rival fans who perhaps do not observe his game closely week after week, or by factions of our fan base who evaluate players solely on the basis of goal output. Which may not be the be best way to assess a player who everyone seems to agree is a striker who does not score goals, or at least whose value is not defined by them.
Admirers love him for his quick feet that can dribble, twirl, and change direction to break past webs of defenders at speed and retain possession. Or the composure with which he can receive a heavy pass, control the ball, and slot it into the net. Or his work rate and defensive prowess at the other end of the field – in 2018 he won more tackles in the league than each of Liverpool’s defenders. Or his skillful reading of the game that allows him to run ahead into good positions anticipating a chance. Or the famous “no-look” tap-ins and back-heel passes. I could go on.
As someone I know once put it, Liverpool from 2018 onwards have had a ‘spine’ that starts with Alisson Becker, moves on to Virgil Van Dijk and Fabinho, and finally to Firmino. It’s a spine that, one could say, stabilizes the whole system.
Recently his goal output has been on the decline somewhat – in 2019/20 he scored 12 goals in all competitions, down from 16 in 2018/19 and 27 in 2017/18. Last season only two of these goals were scored at home in Anfield – one in the Champions League against Atletico Madrid, and another in the Premier League against Chelsea. Over the past few months, this came to be referred to as his Anfield curse.
Last night’s game saw him register zero shots on target against Leeds United along with a few wasteful misses, to the frustration of some fans. The first came at a little under the 2nd minute as a pass from Mane, and another around the 53rd minute. The most glaring miss of them all was a ball played through from the back by Joe Gomez in the 86th minute that was delivered to Firmino in front of a near open net with just one defender and the goalkeeper positioned in between – a shot he might have scored on any other night with his head turned away from goal.
This reflects in his stats as well - Firmino had the highest xG of his career in the 2019/20 season as per Understat, at 16.69 for the Premier League, but he scored just nine times in the league, falling short by 7.69 goals, resulting in a massive gap due to very poor finishing.
What comes foremost to mind is a lack of confidence in front of goal – a touch too many, mishandling the ball in pressure situations, and the lack of a clinical edge that results in misdirected shots. Extremely un-Firmino like traits.
What has not changed however, is his work rate and his consistent involvement in Klopp’s pressing game. As Richard Jolly observed a few months ago, Firmino tops the charts among “centre-forwards for most ball recoveries that lead to a shot within 20 seconds” which still makes him “both the busiest and the best striker in possession”.
His finishing is lacking at the moment, but his role in Liverpool’s furious engine, and the energy he brings on the pitch are unchanged. With the season warming up in the coming weeks, we can only hope that he continues to create chances, and also finds the confidence and edge that allows him to assertively score the flamboyant Bobby Firmino goals that we know and look forward to.