If you were an opposition coach, scout or fan wanting to understand how this Liverpool team works, you would start not with leading scorer Mohamed Salah or FWA Footballer of the Year Jordan Henderson.
Nor would you begin with the best centre-back in the world Virgil van Dijk or the buccaneering full-backs either side of him; and not with the player who was arguably Liverpool’s best last season, Sadio Mane.
You would start with Roberto Firmino, because this is where Liverpool start, and sometimes finish. He is key to understanding how everything else works so effectively.
Most Liverpool fans already know this, and you probably need to watch Liverpool throughout a whole season to understand what the Brazilian brings, but many will see a lack of goals and dismiss Firmino as easily replaceable, when he is anything but.
The 28-year-old has now been at the club for over five years, and is the longest-serving current player after Henderson (Divock Origi joined in 2014 but was loaned back to Lille).
He was an ideal signing for Jurgen Klopp, made even before Klopp arrived, and one who no doubt influenced German’s decision to join Liverpool knowing he already had something to work with.
Roberto Firmino, 2019/20
Started: 43 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 9
Unused sub: 0
Overall Season Rating: 8
Firmino is listed as an attacker in fantasy football games but, really, he should also be getting points as a defender would. He contributes as much on this side of the game as he does to the attack, which will have been helped by his time playing as a volante in Brazil.
Defending from the front and closing down the opposition isn’t a new thing at Liverpool. It’s something which goes back as far as the likes of Ian Rush and Shankly’s teams before that, but no player has ever done it as effectively as Firmino, and no team has done it as systemically as Klopp’s.
Firmino is a massive part of Klopp’s system, and it would be nowhere near as effective without him.
The Brazilian is among the top five in the Premier League for pressures in the final third, and the top ten for successful pressures (i.e. where possession is gained shortly after) according to FBref.
Among Liverpool players, only Salah ranks higher for pressures in the final third, and Firmino is first for pressures in the middle third. It’s here we begin to see the idea that Firmino is a midfielder as well as a striker.
This is illustrated by the actions map below from Smarterscout, which shows Firmino does much of his work in attacking midfield areas, before getting into the box to shoot.
Liverpool’s goals come primarily from their inside forwards, who drift from wide positions into space created by Firmino in the middle.
Salah and Mane are the most productive duo in the league when it comes to goal scoring with 37 between them. Rather than play with one striker, Liverpool play with two and a half, although given the work Firmino puts in and the number of roles he can assume within any one game, he is more like one and a half players all by himself.
Alex Ferguson once told Wayne Rooney not to work as hard up front if he wants to score more goals. Firmino is the opposite of this, working as hard as he can so Salah and Mane, the real strikers in this Liverpool team, can score more (and that’s not to say Salah and Mane don’t work hard either).
And it does work. No central striker notched up more Premier League assists than Firmino’s eight last season, outperforming his 5.8 expected assists.
While he outperforms his expected assists tally, he underperforms in terms of expected goals. He ended the Premier League season with an xG of 13.4, but only scored nine. It’s probably true to say that he should score more, but if the hard work that produces so much for his team-mates occasionally means he isn’t quite sharp enough to take a good chance of his own, it’s a fair tradeoff.
He has still managed to score some important goals for the club, not least his winner in the Club World Cup final. Firmino will be glad Liverpool took this tournament seriously, as it means a lot to clubs and fans in his native Brazil.
Even if other European clubs or fans don’t hold it in such high regard, it was good to see an international club side such as Liverpool show respect to Monterrey against whom Firmino scored the winner. It was also fitting Firmino scored the winner and the game’s only goal in extra-time against Flamengo, a side who are as good a team South America will ever send to this tournament.
Speaking of winning-goals, nine of Firmino’s 12 goals in all competitions during the 2019/20 season were classed as game-winners (per Transfermarkt) — more than any other Liverpool player. It’s been an important goal-scoring contribution, if not a prolific one.
In a recent interview with Sid Lowe for the Guardian, Brazilian coach Sylvinho, whose clubs from his time as a player include Corinthians, Arsenal, and Barcelona, summed up what Firmino brings to Liverpool.
“When I started working with Brazil, Tite [the Brazil coach] sent me to watch Firmino at Burnley and he was incredible,” he said.
“You see him play [on TV] and think: ‘Yeah, he’s very good.’ But at the ground? Wow. He does so much. I left there enamoured.
“The ball’s on the other side and you see him move, the generosity with which he links teammates, how he never lost the ball – that’s incredibly hard in the Premier League.
“If you say ‘I want 40 goals’, maybe he’s not that striker but if you want someone complete, who generates spaces, goes outside, inside, buah! Brilliant.”
Lowe does a good job of translating the noise Sylvinho makes — “buah!”. It’s a noise Liverpool fans, and maybe even those of other clubs who just like watching good football, will make when Firmino pulls off one of his tricks or flamboyant assists.
Despite the intense work rate, he still finds time and energy for regular displays of brilliant Brazilian flair. Between the hard yards he looks like he’s just having a laugh and enjoying the game.
All of this contributes to him being a Liverpool fans’ favourite, and that many fans of other clubs might not ‘get’ what he brings to this championship-winning side, makes him even more appreciated by his own.
Worst moment: A run rather than a moment, but not scoring at Anfield did look like it was bugging him – until the final home game of the season.
Role next season: Klopp’s key to victory. Starter at centre-forward.