Liverpool are finally in a position to address Roberto Firmino’s need for rotation – and now they should

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Roberto Firmino is enduring another dip in form as the undisputed first-choice striker for Liverpool, but now Jurgen Klopp has the ability to rotate his relentless No. 9.

When measuring Firmino’s importance to Liverpool, it is commonly acknowledged that goals are not the yardstick.

The only time the Brazilian broke the 20-goal mark for the club was his top-scoring campaign in 2017/18, which brought 27 strikes in 54 games, including 11 in 15 in the Champions League.

But with the Reds only achieving tangible success in the form of silverware after that season, it is clear that Klopp’s side is not reliant on goals from their striker.

Instead, those largely come from Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, who are bona fide 20-goal-a-season forwards, with Firmino instead creator in chief.

Firmino’s ‘creativity’ does not always manifest itself in the final pass, of course, more often it stems from his movement and boundless work rate, pressing from the front and carving the openings through errors from opposing defenders.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 12, 2020: Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino during the opening FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Leeds United FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. Liverpool won 4-3. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

But when the 29-year-old cuts a tired figure on the pitch, and his passes grow increasingly sloppy, there is a genuine question as to his deserving of a place in the side.

What good, then, is a striker who not only doesn’t score, but cannot press or create as efficiently as he has come to be expected?

It is rare that Firmino is the worst player in the side, but he certainly made a convincing case in Liverpool’s 7-2 humiliation at Aston Villa, continuing a worrying run of form up front.

At Villa Park, Firmino recorded the lowest passing accuracy of any player (67.9%). He made no successful tackles or interceptions, and he was guilty of two fouls.

He did, however, create two chances including the assist for Salah’s second of the game, and fired both of his shots on target including an effort that forced Emi Martinez into a strong save from close range.

But the all-round quality that has allowed Klopp to build his Liverpool system around the No. 9 was not there.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - Sunday, October 4, 2020: Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino sees his shot saved during the FA Premier League match between Aston Villa FC and Liverpool FC at Villa Park. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Too often Firmino hit simple passes wayward, many times into the feet of a Villa player, and as orchestrator of the press, he struggled to quell an important outlet for the home side in the long passes of Tyrone Mings.

According to in-depth statisticians FBref, in his four games in the Premier League so far this season, the Brazilian has recorded the lowest percentage of successful ‘pressures’ in his Liverpool career so far, at 21.5 percent.

That is down from his career-best 31.1 percent from 2019/20, while his pass success rate (76.8%) is also lower than last season (79.5%), though interestingly, Firmino has created more shots (3.51) and goals (0.54) per 90 so far.

Four games is, of course, too small a sample size, but it appears to be a malaise that has been setting in since the Premier League‘s restart in June.

If Firmino’s contribution is at times intangible, so too are his failures; it is, by and large, the eye test that demonstrates how he is struggling.

Quite why is unclear, but it is not the first time Firmino’s consistency levels have dropped – however, it is arguably the first time that it has occurred when Liverpool have a genuine alternative in their ranks.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, September 20, 2020: Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk (L) and Takumi Minamino at the final whistle during the FA Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Stamford Bridge. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by Propaganda)

While Firmino’s output has taken a downturn since the summer, there has been a noticeable improvement in Takumi Minamino following a three-month break during lockdown.

The early months of Minamino’s time at Liverpool were, in short, a nightmare. He made just three starts following his January arrival from Salzburg, along with four substitute appearances, but struggled to make an impact.

He found himself on the periphery of games, and Klopp was not yet decided on his best position, while the most concerning issue came with his lack of strength on the ball.

Then lockdown hit, and a young player moving to a new country, adapting to a new culture and getting to know new team-mates, was forced indoors, his only source of interaction with the rest of the squad being via Zoom.

A goal in the first game back, a 6-0 thrashing of Blackburn in a behind-closed-doors friendly, gave an indication of a new outlook from the No. 18, however.

Since then, Minamino has looked a different player, with a first competitive goal to follow in the Community Shield defeat to Arsenal, and then two more in the 7-2 League Cup mauling of Lincoln.

LINCOLN, ENGLAND - Thursday, September 24, 2020: Liverpool's Takumi Minamino celebrates scoring the second goal with team-mate Harvey Elliott (L) during the Football League Cup 3rd Round match between Lincoln City FC and Liverpool FC at Sincil Bank. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“It was absolutely outstanding,” Klopp reflected after that victory at Sincil Bank.

“[He was] involved in so many situations. So more and more, I think we all realise where his qualities are.

“Wherever he will play in the end, he will end up in the centre; if he plays on the left wing or the right wing, he will play in the half-spaces or the centre, because that’s where he has his real strength.

“And it looked really well. If you saw, the opponent kicked off seven times, and the first guy that chased the kickoff again when they received the pass was Taki.

“He set the rhythm for all these pressing and counter-pressing situations, and I really, really liked the game tonight.”

Like Firmino, Minamino is a versatile forward who can operate on either flank if required, but his natural game is played in the central areas; this could be seen in the Community Shield, when despite being deployed on the left, he effectively played as another No. 10.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, September 20, 2020: Liverpool’s manager Jürgen Klopp prepares to bring on substitute Takumi Minamino during the FA Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Stamford Bridge. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by Propaganda)

Klopp recognises this now, and even more telling in his praise of Minamino’s performance against Lincoln was that he “set the rhythm” for Liverpool’s pressing game.

It certainly sounded familiar, as if the manager was back in his first season on Merseyside, exasperated at the outside perceptions of Firmino, whose importance to his setup was paramount.

Albeit with an even smaller sample size, the Japanese is averaging 31.7 ‘pressures’ per 90 in the Premier League this season, compared to Firmino’s 21.4, with Minamino’s success rate significantly higher at 42.1 percent to Firmino’s 21.5 percent.

His passing accuracy is slightly higher than Firmino’s (77.3% to 76.8%), and while his shot (1.76 to 3.53) and goal (zero to 0.54) creation rates are much lower, the eye test again suggests that Minamino is getting in the right places to influence play in the final third.

Firmino will endure, but as Klopp’s most-used player – who has clocked the equivalent of 40 full games in each of the last five seasons – there is certainly a virtue in resting the Brazilian to allow him to recapture his best form.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, June 24, 2020: Liverpool’s substitute Takumi Minamino prepares to replace Roberto Firmino during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Crystal Palace FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Bringing in Minamino can ease that process, though it will be a big test of both Klopp’s faith in the player and the player’s ability to perform in high-profile games for Liverpool in such a pivotal role.

Minamino has only started twice in the Premier League so far, once in the goalless draw with Everton in June, in which he was substituted at half-time, and then in the dead-rubber final-day victory at Newcastle in July.

Asking him to take Firmino’s place in the next Merseyside derby on October 17, or the Champions League opener at Ajax on October 21, will be a different challenge entirely.

The change may be forced, of course, with Firmino a doubt for the trip to Everton as he arrives back late from duty with Brazil, needing a COVID-19 test.

There are other ways to navigate the situation, most notably a move to a 4-2-3-1, with Salah taking duties up front.

But with Liverpool’s No. 9 in desperate need of rotation in order to coax him back to form, at some point Klopp will have to trust that Minamino can adequately fill in for Firmino.

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