There’s always one player who seems to divide opinion in the Liverpool starting line-up and right now that individual appears to be Roberto Firmino – so is a change forthcoming?
The Brazilian is anything but a typical No. 9: more defender than striker, more tackles than goals, but with flair and movement to grace most front lines in the world.
He’s an irritation to defenders, makes space for others to thrive in and has earned criticism for his lack of goals – yet he’s a starting centre-forward for the reigning Premier League champions and the Brazil national team.
Firmino defies logic, eschews the football norms and has the fanbase in a tizzy, so is it time for him to sit on the bench or does he remain integral to our plans for a reason?
The team at This Is Anfield discuss his form, place in the side and the immediate needs of the team as Joanna Durkan (@JoannaDurkan_), Matt Ladson (@mattladson), Henry Jackson (@HenryJackson87) and Karl Matchett (@karlmatchett) each present their cases.
Where do you stand on Firmino’s performance level? Is it a concern recently, for much longer or not at all?
JOANNA: It is a concern and one which has been primarily post-lockdown as the qualities which made him an integral part of the team have waned.
As our fans mostly know, it is not the numbers of goals and assists which raise red flags, rather the increasingly obvious fatigue which is hampering the qualities which make him so effective in Liverpool’s team.
He looks leggy and uncharacteristically sloppy in possession and as to whether it is physical, mental or a combination of both, he does appear to be playing with weight on his shoulders.
Bobby has shown positive glimpses though and maybe his Brazil goals in October revitalised him a little.
MATT: It would be naive to say it isn’t a concern, and imagine behind closed doors it is for the player and the manager too.
However, Firmino has played a lot of football in the last four years for us – too much, really, and he definitely last season showed signs of this.
He, more than anybody, needs to be rotated more this season in order to get the best from him still.
HENRY: I’ve stuck with him for a long time, but it’s now officially a concern.
He wasn’t great in early 2019/20 but still delivered a number of times, but since lockdown he has been an absolute shadow of his former self.
It’s not the lack of goals that worry me, even though his finishing has been awful, it’s his all-round game. The touch is terrible, the passes are off target and his legs don’t look full of life off the ball.
KARL: I’m honestly not concerned until we need to score, then it’s a concern because the likelihood is that Bobby won’t provide the chance or the finish.
As has been said previously, we’re that good we can carry one underperformer, we’ve just been used to that person not being in attack.
Overall it’s more of a frustration when he loses the ball than a big concern in my mind.
Why do you think Jurgen Klopp has him as a starter this season?
JOANNA: He’s Klopp’s go-to man – he has played 247 out of the 277 games the manager has been in charge of.
The Brazilian epitomises all that is Liverpool under Klopp and the subtlety of his work can often be overlooked by those who are too quick to pass judgement on his final product – pulling and dragging defenders and providing the first line of defence are just a few of the qualities which make him so important to the team.
There is also reason to suggest that if Klopp has noticed his drop and perhaps feels Firmino can play his way into form one game at a time.
MATT: I’ve been surprised he’s started every league game so far, and the Ajax game. It’s a massive workload.
I fully expected Minamino to be starting one of these games we’ve had so far, to ask any footballer to start three games per week in consecutive weeks is far from ideal.
HENRY: I think so much revolves around Firmino that Klopp is no doubt hoping that he sparks again from nowhere. Put simply, when he is brilliant, Liverpool are brilliant.
When he isn’t, the performances lack something. That is happening at the moment, and has for months.
That ability to drop deep and allow space in behind for Salah and Mane is priceless when he is on-song, and he is the man who links the midfield and attack together. Klopp knows how unique he is to his style.
KARL: I’ll offer an alternative possibility: Klopp can plainly see when a player’s touch and timing is off, but he’s using Firmino to soften up the beachhead.
In other words, while his final pass might off the radar at the moment, he still offers all the running and off-the-ball movement which tires’ defenders minds and legs – with Klopp having the knowledge that we have extra pace and attackers on the bench to win games late on this year.
Those new faces don’t quite know all the intricacies of our game yet perhaps, so Firmino knackers the opposition, then the subs finish them off.
Are you worried about his ‘demise’ or sure he’ll bounce back?
JOANNA: I’m not at all worried. He’s been my favourite player for some time now and while clearly not at his best, I’m positive he will bounce back.
It’s a weird and unforgiving season in both football and life on a grand scale and I simply think he is in need of a rest – doing the role he does for more than five years isn’t easy!
MATT: No, not worried, I think he needs a break and to have a more reliable deputy who can release some of the workload. Hopefully we have that in Minamino eventually, but I personally haven’t seen it enough and perhaps neither has Klopp yet.
HENRY: Well, he is 29 now and has got through an unbelievable amount of work in the last three of four years, so there is a nagging feeling that his legs may be going ever so slightly. Some players do suddenly drift past their peak early.
I still think this is just a big dip in form, though – 29 is far from old – and one that he desperately needs to come out of very soon.
It would be just like him to score a stoppage-time winner at Man City.
KARL: Not worried. He’s never going to be a 20-a-season player because we don’t use him that way.
I’m a bit higher on Minamino than some others perhaps and I’d like to see him involved already.
We’ve seen it before at left-back, centre-back and midfield: give someone else a run, raise the competition, rest the players and the overall level of quality goes up.
Considering the importance and difficulty of the next two, Atalanta and Man City, would you take him out?
JOANNA: With the options available to us now, I do believe there is an opportunity to take him out of the side for at least one of those games.
Atalanta, while a valuable chance to cement top spot in the group, it is one which we can afford to drop points in with two home games left in the competition and so it could be an opportune moment to switch him out.
The game against Man City presents an entirely different set of circumstances, he’s still firmly in Klopp’s first-choice XI and he certainly enjoys playing against them having made nine goalscoring contributions (five goals, four assists) in 14 appearances.
I’d rest him in Europe and see how he fares at City before making a new plan post the international break.
MATT: He definitely wouldn’t start at Atalanta for me, and there’s plenty of other options without him.
I’d want him back fully ready for the City game and a week ‘off’ could be just what he needs for such a big game. The City game is the priority this week.
HENRY: I’m so torn. I think I would give him one last chance again Atalanta and hope that he does adequately, at least. But if he is awful again, he should be dropped for the City game.
KARL: I’m with Jo and Matt. Rest for Europe, has to play vs. City – and will probably be excellent.
There are four real options, so who comes in out of Jota, Shaq, Taki or Div?
JOANNA: Jota is the first cab off the rank, no doubt. He’s been nothing short of exceptional since the move and offers that driving force in possession and an intensity off it.
Minamino would be the next in line. He hasn’t had too many chances to shine within one of Klopp’s first-choice XIs and he appears to be a confidence type of player. My only concern is his physicality in the challenge.
MATT: I laughed at you mentioning Origi in this equation.
Any of the others really is fine as there are plenty of flexible formations in which they can fit. You could easily just go with Salah as the 9, Mane on the right and Jota on the left vs. Atalanta.
HENRY: Jota is the logical one because he looks superb at the moment, but he is a very different player to Firmino. It would essentially mean playing three wide men in attack and no natural central link player, though. Would that work?
Minamino, therefore, makes more sense in a lot of ways, but he was wretched against Midtjylland and doesn’t justify a start.
KARL: Minamino for me. He is close to clicking and I’d like to see him play with actual starters around him, not just others coming in trying to gain rhythm.
He has so many qualities which can help us, and it still leaves the pace of Jota late on to have the same impact as usual.
Are you in favour of a system switch to put Mo up top or just a straight change, Firmino out and another in?
JOANNA: The brilliant thing about the options we have is that they are versatile and that fluidity is what can make Liverpool so dangerous within games.
At this stage, with Firmino’s drop in output on a physical level, both Taki and Jota inject a renewed level of intensity on and off the ball and a creative output would be the bonus.
Ultimately, Firmino needs competition and this could ignite the fire in his belly once more.
MATT: I’d go 4-2-3-1 more often, especially if/when Thiago is fully fit.
HENRY: I’m not a massive fan of the 4-2-3-1 because I don’t think it gets the best out of Salah and Mane, but there is a part of me that thinks it allows Klopp to play Jota and Firmino, too, which saves him a selection headache.
Then again, that would mean a two-man midfield, which arguably wouldn’t work against Atalanta and Man City, because Liverpool could get outnumbered in the middle.
I would both stick with a 4-3-3 and Firmino. Come on Bobby, up your game, lad.
KARL: I’m happy to alter the system on a game-by-game basis regardless of who starts, depending on where we must protect and where we can exploit.
Against Atalanta you start with a holding man in the 6, otherwise, Papu Gomez annihilates you, so it’s a midweek 4-3-3.