It was a strange season for Roberto Firmino – even more so than most players – but his successful revival act proves he can remain a pivotal player for Liverpool in the future.
For so long, Firmino was seen as the fulcrum of Jurgen Klopp‘s side; the most irreplaceable player in the pack.
His quality is so hard to pin down that, often, he does not get the credit he deserves outside of Anfield, but in L4, he has been rightly revered.
But the 2020/21 campaign brought to a head a growing malaise for the Brazilian that has prompted debate over his long-term future on Merseyside, and his value as a first-choice starter.
A positive end, however, has given further food for thought, with Firmino answering his critics in emphatic style as Liverpool rose to third in the Premier League.
What comes next is crucial, for both the No. 9 and his club.
Roberto Firmino, 2020/21
Started: 38 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 10
Unused sub: 0
Overall Season Rating: 6.66
For every player, the tight turnaround between seasons took its toll, and with Firmino’s brand of centre-forward play reliant on his nonstop pressing and sharpness of touch, it showed.
The 29-year-old still laid on assists against Chelsea and Aston Villa and scored against Sheffield United and Leicester in his first nine games of the Premier League campaign, but his influence was waning.
He remained a nailed-on starter in the league, but with Jota scoring nine times in his first 14 games for the club and forming a strong understanding with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, Firmino was edging towards expendable status.
But his contributions in front of goal were becoming too infrequent, leading to justifiable discourse over his place in the side.
“I must say, I am worried for Firmino,” Jamie Carragher said mid-January.
“He’s never been seen as ‘the goalscorer’, that’s the responsibility of the other two, but he’s there to chip in,
“And when they’re not scoring, I just feel he needs to be a bigger goal threat.
“I also think obviously his bringing players into the game has sort of dropped off, and also the counter-pressing and winning the ball back has dropped off.”
At the time, it was difficult to argue with Carragher, with both the numbers and the eye test suggesting Firmino may have peaked as a performer.
Klopp still backed him, though, as did his team-mates.
Firmino’s struggles were even acknowledged by Klopp later in the campaign, describing it as “for sure a result of the season,” before adding that “Bobby is not old or tired or something like that – or lost everything.”
Instead, the assertion was that, with a lack of stability in defence, Firmino was forced to drop deeper and deeper to aid Liverpool’s all-round play.
Without a steady centre-back pairing, and the comfort blanket of Fabinho in the No. 6 role, the striker felt responsibility as a defender.
He came off the bench to score against Southampton, netted a match-winning brace against Man United, wore the captain’s armband for the first time against West Brom, scored against Burnley and assisted against Crystal Palace.
As Liverpool produced a perfect end to the season, with five consecutive wins, Firmino was close to his best again – and it could have come at the ideal moment.
A summer priority?
Though Klopp will defend his complete No. 9 to the hilt, the scars of 2020/21 should spark consideration over his standing in the squad.
When it comes to competition, Divock Origi is far from up to scratch, but even with Jota now back fit and firing, the addition of another option up front should be a priority this summer.
Firmino’s relentless brand of attacking play will see him continue to experience these dips in form, particularly as he nears his 30th birthday in October, and rest will be required.
The prospect of finding an alternative to Firmino, who is still one of the most unique players in world football, is another matter entirely.
Hertha Berlin’s Matheus Cunha has emerged as a possibility, along with Salzburg’s Patson Daka, and both currently 22 they would fit the profile as competition, rather than a direct replacement.
It will be one of the most difficult tasks for Liverpool’s recruitment staff, but with the season just gone a warning sign when it comes to overusing Firmino, it may also be one of the most important.
Best moment: A two-goal domination of Man United at Old Trafford
Worst moment: 15 games without a goal
Role next season: Still first choice, but with more rotation