With Roberto Firmino experiencing a continued downturn in form and influence at Liverpool, it is time to provide the No. 9 with more competition for his starting spot.
If this relentless, congested campaign has shown us anything, it’s that constant football is, in fact, not very good at all.
Sure, over the festive period, it would normally be considered a treat to be able to stretch out and watch the Premier League almost every day for a fortnight.
But in this sterile, commercial season, dogged by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the farce of VAR, it has become a largely joyless affair, to be weathered rather than relished.
That would be the case were Liverpool still riding high, and were not hampered by a ridiculous injury list that could see Jordan Henderson join the out-for-the-season brigade.
It is a situation that could shorten careers, and at youth level may even halt them before they begin such is the stop-start nature of their fixture list, with there a very real possibility that 2020/21 will be looked back on as a watershed campaign.
Within this, and moving forward, Jurgen Klopp is tasked with overseeing the evolution of his squad, who are not only spread thin but, on the majority, also edging past their peak years.
This could well be the case with Roberto Firmino, who is in the throes of an 18-month malaise that has seen patience on the virtual Kop close to wearing out.
For so long the “engine” of Klopp’s Liverpool side, Firmino has been the model for a new brand of No. 9; not an out-and-out goalscorer, not a target man, not a player shoehorned into a ‘false’ role – a groundbreaking centre-forward.
Firmino’s exact role is so difficult to pin down, operating predominantly in the space not necessarily deemed tangible in the straightforward tactical assessment of the game. Or in other words, between the lines.
Only once in his five full seasons at Anfield so far has Firmino scored more than 20 goals in all competitions, that being in 2017/18, when 15 came in the league, one in the FA Cup and, incredibly, 11 on the road to the Champions League final.
That has, at least publicly, been accepted by Klopp as an occupational hazard, explaining as such back in December, albeit with the caveat that “Roberto wants to score goals.”
“It’s really important that each player knows the job he has to do in a game. They are different,” he told reporters.
“In the end, it’s important the team scores and that happens thankfully most of the time often enough. Not always, but most of the time.”
But there are too convergent issues with Firmino within this current setup, and in particular this over-demanding season.
Firstly, for a long period he has not sustained a consistent level of influence that negates his blunt edges in front of goal; and secondly, when Mane and Salah are not firing, Liverpool’s third attacker has been woeful in his own finishing.
To use Klopp’s engine analogy: if it is not working to a functional capacity, does it not require maintenance, or at worst replacing entirely?
That is the conundrum that may face the manager as he looks ahead to the summer transfer window, working alongside Michael Edwards and the club’s recruitment staff.
Not only are Firmino’s rates of goals and assists following a downward trajectory, so too are his underlying statistics, according to FBref, such as his shot creating actions and successful pressures per 90:
* FBref defines a ‘shot creating action’ as “offensive actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls.”
* FBref defines a ‘successful pressure’ as “the number of times the squad gained possession within five seconds of applying pressure.”
Firmino is by no means ‘done’, despite the increasing number of supporters erring towards that conclusion, but it can certainly be argued that this non-stop schedule is affecting the No. 9 more than most.
One of Firmino’s best qualities is his availability, with only two players throughout Klopp’s entire managerial career making more appearances than his 272.
James Milner is the next-closest Liverpool player, with 229, while last season no one played more times than the 29-year-old, who is on course to repeat this feat as top appearance-maker this time out, too.
Klopp is clearly aware of the physical demand on his first-choice striker, subbing him off comfortably more times (130) than any other player during his time at Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool.
But as his performances noticeably suffer at this stage in his career, it seems now is the time to give Firmino more competition and cover in leading the line.
This has already been acknowledged, of course, with the signings of Takumi Minamino and, more so, Diogo Jota, but the decision to allow Minamino to join Southampton on loan, coupled with the diminishing returns of Divock Origi up top, shows that more is needed.
It was fitting that on the night that saw Firmino fire three of his four shots off target in the Merseyside derby, Erling Braut Haaland was at his clinical best yet again with a brace in Dortmund’s 4-0 thrashing of Schalke.
Real talk, do we actually have any proof that Haaland wasn't made in a factory?
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 21, 2021
Haaland is a different breed of striker; a preeminent, generational talent who has made the jump from the Austrian Bundesliga to its more distinguished German counterpart with ease.
After scoring 29 and assisting seven in just 27 games for Red Bull Salzburg, the Leeds-born Norwegian is currently on 43 goals and 10 assists in 43 appearances for Dortmund.
Ten of those goals have come in seven outings in the Champions League, and with his 21st birthday not until July, it is clear Haaland is on course to become one of world football’s leading strikers – if he isn’t already.
Firmino’s rise at Liverpool is a prime example of the club’s ethos of avoiding deals for the best of the best in favour of nurturing rough diamonds, but as their Premier League crown teeters miserably, perhaps Haaland is an opportunity too attractive to overlook.
A €75 million release clause was negotiated into the youngster’s contract upon his move from Salzburg to Dortmund, but this can only be activated from the summer of 2022.
But perhaps its existence could see Dortmund do business for slightly above this as early as this summer – if that is the case, Liverpool should look to front the queue for his services.
Haaland will not be short of suitors when the time comes to leave the Westfalenstadion, of course, and that may leave Klopp, Edwards and Co. to consider other options, but if so, it could still be advantageous to look for a player of a different profile to Firmino himself.
Firmino is still tied to Liverpool until 2023, with two years left on his contract as of this summer, which ensures he can remain part of Klopp’s squad moving forward.
But the vagaries of this particular campaign, and their likely lasting impact on the No. 9’s output, has illuminated the need for another genuine, reliable, top-class centre-forward at Anfield as soon as possible.