Liverpool fans have been burned before when it comes to big name attacking signings. Diego Costa chose to stay with Atletico Madrid for a year before moving to Chelsea. Henrikh Mkhitaryan picked Dortmund. Alexis Sanchez chose Arsenal. And they were the tip of the iceberg for a club and fanbase that hadn’t seen an attacking signing of that kind of proven, established quality following the capture of Luis Suarez in 2011.
There was skepticism, then, when reports out of Brazil suggested a deal was nearly done to bring in Roberto Firmino. A suspicion that it was only the player’s agents seeking to spur a bidding war or maybe even to get a little more out of Manchester United, who had been linked to Firmino. This time around, though, there was a happy ending for Liverpool fans.
Attacking Midfield/Forward | Hoffenheim
DOB: 2/10/91 (23) | Height: 5'11½" (1.81 meters)
2014-15: 36 appearances | 10 goals | 12 assists
Strengths: Arriving as a player who was one of the best multi-purpose attackers in the Bundesliga, there is almost nothing Roberto Firmino doesn’t do very, very well when it comes to play in the final third. His quick feet have made him one of the best dribblers in Europe the past two seasons, ranked behind only Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard in successful take-ons in both 2013-14 and 2014-15. His strength means he can shield the ball as well as any attacker in the game—and has meant that even when he can’t dribble around a defender, he may be able to run right over them.
Though he isn't at his most comfortable leading the line on his own, Firmino can be a clinical finisher when he gets in the box—and a deadly long-range shooter when he doesn’t. At Hoffenheim, he averaged a goal every three games over five seasons, with his best year 2013-14 when he scored 22 goals in 37 games across all competitions. While his goals and assists dropped off a little in 2014-15, his underlying statistics remained strong and he still managed to score at a rate of nearly one in every three matches while adding a dozen assists.
His ability to link with teammates, to cycle deep and swap positions on the fly, is exemplary, as is his tactical awareness and ability to find space. When offered options he will make the smart pass in the final third, and if he can develop an understanding with his teammates he is the kind of player who can help to unpack a tight defence. His vision, movement, strength, and dribbling skill allied with a desire to always press forward make Firmino an exciting and exceptionally effective attacking presence no matter the specific role he’s being asked to take on.
The drive that always has him pushing forward with the ball also helps to make him a highly effective forward when his team doesn’t have it, and Firmino has averaged more than two tackles per game every year since joining Hoffenheim. His aggression does at times lead to fouls and yellow cards, but it’s a small price to pay for a forward—or attacking midfielder, depending on the role he's filling—who never stops running, pressing, and harrying the opposition, and who has the stamina to do so for 90 minutes.
Weaknesses: Top end speed and, at times, concentration can seem issues, but in the larger picture they are minor ones. Firmino can occasionally seem as though he lets a bad game get to him, and can grow frustrated and ineffective if an opponent has early success marking him. This can lead to the player taking too many risks and becoming increasingly aggressive on and off the ball. Overcoming that is the biggest obstacle to Firmino taking the next step and getting his name into the conversation as one of the best players in Europe, but even if he never does take that next step, he is already an attacker who would start for any of the top four sides in England.
As for his lack of top end speed, while it might be nice if Firmino could keep up with the Raheem Sterlings of the world, fellow top dribblers Messi and Hazard aren't the fastest players in their respective squads and nobody would count that as a mark against them. Luis Suarez, who Firmino’s at times overwhelmingly physical approach will remind many Liverpool fans of, wasn’t a track star, either. For a player who does his best work in the central areas and who is so skilled in so many other ways, Firmino is more than fast enough.
Summation: As a sometimes attacking midfielder from Brazil who is joining Liverpool, Philippe Coutinho comparisons may be unavoidable for some, but Firmino’s role at the club is likely to be far closer to the one Raheem Sterling has been asked to fill over the past two season—whether it’s playing as part of a dynamic front three as Sterling did in 2013-14 or at times being asked to lead the line as was the case in 2014-15. Their skill sets aren't the same, but the role they're asked to take on will be similar. And for all Sterling’s promise, right now Firmino is the better player in every way bar top end speed. He’s still got room to grow, too.
That and not Coutinho’s slightly deeper, more creative role will be Firmino’s place in next season’s Liverpool side, and it would be more worthwhile to look to the players who have filled that role—or who Liverpool had wanted to bring in to fill that role—for the clearest points of comparison. Simply put, Roberto Firmino is the kind of player the club needed to sign last summer to replace Luis Suarez, and more so than Sterling perhaps—where the similarities don't go much beyond expected role—those are where there are some clear similarities to be found. There are also similarities to the game of Alexis Sanchez, who Liverpool attempted to sign last year to replace Suarez.
The cost, a reported £29M plus wages in the £100k per week range, may seem steep after early reports of a £18M buyout clause were complicated by third-party ownership. For a player as good as Firmino, with room to grow even further, with his skill-set and clear value to a Liverpool side that have now finally, belatedly, but properly replaced the departed Luis Suarez in attack, it’s a price well worth paying. Firmino arrives and is immediately, instantly, one of the Premier League’s best and most exciting attackers. He will make a difference.