The regeneration of Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool team is perhaps most stark and apparent in the fact Roberto Firmino is no longer a guaranteed starter, with the Brazilian having had an unusually testing season at Anfield.
Numbers: the bottom line of what this Liverpool team has been built on.
Numbers in finance columns, balancing them and making sure we don’t outspend our earnings. Numbers in data, of what players can and cannot do and making sure they perfectly fit our requirements.
And, we should add, numbers being constantly rewritten on account of the records we’ve broken and the trophies we’ve won, with even the Wall of Champions getting a pretty regular re-fit over the past few seasons.
So what do we take from Roberto Firmino‘s numbers this season, and how do you boil them down into a far-reaching conclusion such as “on the decline” or “still has lots to give”?
For instance, Bobby played just 985 minutes in the Premier League this season. Only once had he previously been below 2,600, and that was in his debut campaign where he barely played under Brendan Rodgers or until Klopp took over. He still tallied more league minutes that year than he has in all competitions in 2021/22.
But also, Firmino scored or assisted every 112 minutes this season, with 16 from 17 starts – immense for a player weirdly criticised as not contributing enough in those areas previously.
For context, the rest of our forwards’ goal or assist rates were: Salah (85), Mane (140), Jota (123), Diaz (120, Liverpool and Porto), Minamino (91) and Origi (60).
So: key contributor? Fluke of early-season form? Or a representative depiction of a former great whose body this term suddenly struggled to cope with the relentless demands on him over the last four or five years?
Roberto Firmino, 2021/22
Started: 17 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 18
Unused sub: 3
Overall Season Rating: 7.25
Poacher, predator, presser
It feels a long time ago now, but there was a point in the season where Firmino was regularly on the pitch and regularly celebrating.
By mid-October, he had six goals from three starts, improbably. But more than the fact he had the ball in the net was where he scored from: between the penalty spot and the six-yard box, basically.
Firmino, for years, was acknowledged as a great forward and link player in terms of his off-the-ball work, but was never given absolute respect in some quarters due to a lack of 20-a-season on his CV.
Here was a player still doing his usual job in deeper areas, but also busting a gut to get himself much higher than he had done previously, with more frequency.
He also notched against Porto from close range, reacting in instinctive fashion having already netted from outside the area.
This was Bobby the all-round No. 9: still with link play, still relentlessly pressing, still an intelligent conduit and a game-changer off the bench, but also much more of a fox-in-the-box whenever possible.
Perhaps it was Jota’s scoring form at the time or the all-round threat (and benefit) of competition for places, but early on in 2021/22, Firmino kept pace with everyone else’s performance level.
Injuries and missing out
Unfortunately, even while the goals were rolling in across the first third of the campaign, the signs were already on show for what was to come.
Firmino went off injured against Chelsea in what was his first league start of the season in August, missed out on the home game with Milan and two more top-flight games as a result of that strain, then in November both came on as a sub and was then subbed off, as injury struck again.
The No. 9 missed eight games with a hamstring problem and then spent two further spells sidelined: six missed including the final in February and March, then a foot issue in April saw him sit out another half a dozen.
He ended 14th in the squad by minutes this season, playing just under 30 percent of all available league minutes.
It tells a story of not just drastically reduced reliability – he was previously one of those never injured – but also of how greater depth in attack means he hasn’t exactly been rushed back into the XI.
Firmino has, in and around those injuries, still provided some magic moments.
But overall it’s hard to feel anything other than this being a season of slippage for Firmino, even if the reasons behind it were far from down to him.
Another in a familiar boat
It’s tempting to imagine those writing the daily news here at TIA Towers just have a template constantly open which reads “XXXX has just one year left on his contract” – all they have to do is write in the name.
Like Sadio, Mo, Adrian, Ox, Naby
and Milner (one down, how many more to go?), Bobby has a single campaign remaining as it stands.
Here’s a viewpoint on our No. 9: keep him as long as he’s happy to stay. Renew, and run him into the ground.
It is unlikely Firmino has a ‘market value’ to other clubs who might sign him which really equates what he has been worth to Liverpool.
As long as Klopp can still get plenty out of him – and obviously the answer there is yes, he can – then keeping Firmino as a squad forward for another two or three seasons on an incentivised deal seems like a very routine, very easy win.
Bobby has already said he wants to stay, but one factor which might test that is the Brazil national team.
He has lost his spot in the Selecao squad as a result of being injured and unavailable too often when international breaks come around, and with the World Cup looming large he’ll want to start fast next season and earn a spot.
And maybe that could play into Liverpool’s hands nicely: if Mane leaves, as looks likely right now, then a new arrival (likely Darwin Nunez) can also be expected.
But, Luis Diaz aside, most new arrivals are given time to bed in and find their feet, only coming into the side after several months once the pressing, positioning and expectations demands have been fully understood in training.
So let’s say we land a new No. 9: will they immediately be first-choice? Perhaps not.
Perhaps that’s where Firmino comes in, filling an early-season role to show he still has lots to offer at Anfield and can be a crucial, ongoing part of our depth.
Maybe being a starter again for a few months earns him a spot back in the Brazil squad, a trip to the World Cup – and an extended Anfield stay.
By that time, a Konate-esque type of handover could be in order at the top end of the pitch as the new arrival takes over.
A lot hinges on Firmino finding, and maintaining, peak fitness next year – making it a huge pre-season for Bobby in the coming weeks.
Best moment: A hat-trick at Watford in October in a 5-0 thrashing, with his goals and all-round performance of the highest class. He was also great off the bench in Porto, scoring twice to round off a 5-1.
Worst moment: Obviously a season of injury as a whole, but for a more specific point it has to be the fact that across three cup finals, Firmino was only fit and ready enough for 35 minutes of action.
Role next season: Hopefully a return to his former robust self. There’s no chance he’ll be sold and Liverpool should get everything out of him they can – an important squad player who should be pushing for more minutes, especially if Mane does leave.