Recruited from Hoffenheim for less than £30m in 2015 when Brendan Rodgers was Liverpool's manager, the signing of Roberto Firmino has proved an absolute steal. Leading the devastating front three Jürgen Klopp has assembled, Firmino played a crucial role in Liverpool’s ascent to the top of the Premier League and the league title they won in 2020 – their first in 30 years. Alongside Sadio Mané and Mo Salah, Firmino sometimes fades into the shadows of his record-breaking team, but Klopp is in no doubt about the Brazilian’s importance.
“Bobby is a complete footballer,” the manager said. “A football team is like an orchestra – you have different people for different instruments. Some of them are louder than others but they are all important for the rhythm. Bobby plays something like 12 instruments in our orchestra. He’s very important.”
Firmino is an extremely gifted footballer who does his most eye-catching work in crowded areas, combining brilliant close control and dribbling with an ability to unlock a compact defence with a piece of skill or a deft through ball. In that sense he is extremely well-suited to a centre-forward's role for a dominant team like Liverpool, who regularly encounter well-drilled, low-block defences.
He has a wonderful first touch and is capable of moments of jaw-dropping individual brilliance that only a rare breed of player can produce. He manipulates play by attracting attention towards the ball and then taking touches to open dangerous passing lines further forwards, through which he looks for the runs of Salah (below) and Mané. Even though he is so effective in drawing attention away from his teammates with his actions on the ball and at actually creating chances, a great deal of his most valuable work is regardless done off the ball.
Firmino is incredibly clever with his movement, and that is a significant part of the reason he is so effective in attack for Klopp’s Liverpool. His awareness – not only of his surroundings but also of how his position will affect the game – is arguably his greatest strength. He does a good job of leading their press and works well in tandem with teammates to quickly force play into crowded areas.
He also has the rare ability to help his team progress through central areas by drifting into space between the lines and demanding the ball; he breaks lines with his positioning and by receiving passes from midfield. Given how good his control is Firmino’s teammates know that they can trust him to control the ball and that they can play passes to him at speed in order to catch defenders off guard and slice through a compact midfield. He can bring even the most challenging of passes under control, and he is also strong enough and clever enough with his first touch to hold off opponents and retain possession when under pressure.
Then is when his awareness of where his teammates is becomes influential, because he is able to spot opportunities to play them in with a flick that plenty of players wouldn't dare even try. Part of the reason he is so successful with those is that he constantly scans his surroundings, looking over his shoulder so he knows what is behind him (below). He is equally adept at taking an opportunity if his direct opponent has not kept tight enough to him, by appearing to prepare to play a first-time pass but instead checking back in the other direction and on to his other foot. In doing so, Firmino can create large enough spaces between himself and his opponent that he can turn to play a progressive pass forwards from a much stronger position than if he had merely taken his first touch back towards where the pass came from – the safest option and the one most players would take.
As a centre-forward, Firmino’s ball striking could improve. He miscues his shots too often to be considered a truly elite striker, and although he is far more than just a goalscorer he does need to score more goals.
Role for Liverpool
Firmino came to Liverpool as a goalscoring number 10. In his penultimate season at Hoffenheim in 2013/14, from a position behind their striker Anthony Modeste, Firmino was the Bundesliga’s fourth highest goalscorer, his 16 goals in 33 appearances trailing only Robert Lewandowski, Mario Mandzukic and Josip Drmic. He initially played in the same position following his move to Liverpool, but he quickly convinced Klopp that he was a better option up front than any of their struggling strikers.
Firmino has unquestionably been a success as Liverpool’s centre-forward despite suffering occasional droughts in front of goal, because the extent of his impact at Anfield has never solely been measured in goals. What’s more is that his role has become less about scoring as time has passed.
His contributions to Liverpool’s attacking play come in deeper positions than ever before, and while he will often be found attacking balls into the area from their full-backs, he will often arrive late, having earlier in that move helped in midfield. He moves away from the opposition's centre-backs to join Liverpool’s midfield three with the aim of creating an overload in the central part of the pitch. He will adopt a position at the tip of that diamond to receive vertical passes and turn or, if a defender is too tight to him, set the ball back to one of the central midfielders on the diamond's side. There are even occasions when he drops back further and adopts a position on the side of the diamond (above).
His movements give centre-backs a dilemma as to whether to follow him into midfield and potentially leave a gap for Mané or Salah to run into, or to leave Firmino free to turn between the lines. He also creates gaps for Liverpool’s wider central midfielders to move into, when their full-backs are providing the team’s width.
As Firmino has moved into a deeper role and Liverpool’s full-backs have grown in influence, their wide forwards Salah and Mané have played from a narrower starting position (above), where they pose a greater and more consistent threat on the opposition's goal. With that in mind, Liverpools’ 4-3-3 often appears more like a 4-3-1-2 when they have the ball, though their full-backs sometimes push so high that it is more like a 3-2-3-2 when in possession.
Firmino, Salah and Mané all play a key role in Liverpool’s counter-pressing, launching co-ordinated attempts to regain the ball as quickly as possible high up the pitch, or at the very least to force an opponent into a rushed clearance that can be regained nearer the halfway line. Quick turnovers and a new wave of attack allows Klopp’s Liverpool to build the kind of momentum and pressure on the opposition's defence that they have become so well known for. At their peak, few opponents have managed to withstand those attacks for a full 90 minutes; their drop in form at the start of 2021 coincided with a drop in the success of their press.
Doubts have been raised as to whether Firmino adds enough of a goal threat to lead the line for a team like Liverpool, but any lack of a goal return from their number nine did not stop them becoming English, European and world champions. Firmino’s contributions in other areas of Liverpool’s play mean there is little chance of Klopp losing faith in a player who remains key to his orchestra.
Author: Tony Hodson