It has been a difficult season for Roberto Firmino. For large parts of the season, he has cut a frustrated figure. He has, in many ways, been a symbol for the failings of this season: slow and stodgy in the build-up play; some degree of craft in front of goal, but lacking the needed ruthless streak.
While a whole chunk of the conversation revolving around the club has dealt with the centre-back situation, when talk moves further up the pitch it inevitably leads to a conversation about Bobby: is he past his best? Can Liverpool still play with a false nine? Do they need to move on? If not move on, they should at least bring in new options, right?
That has been coupled with the outstanding form of Diogo Jota, who arrived as an all-singing, all-dancing summer signing. Jota’s ability to turn not-even-half-chances into goals has been in direct conflict with Firmino, who needs on average three chances in order to find the back of the neck.
Ordinarily, when he’s not providing goals, he’s doing so much without the ball — his movement, his pressing — that it more than makes up for that lack of a clinical streak. This season, however, has been the first time Firmino has looked largely impotent off the ball. If he’s not providing that, then what is he doing, detractors have fairly asked?
It’s why Jurgen Klopp shifted to the slimmed-down, everyone-one-buzz-in-behind front-three featuring Jota, Sadio Mané, and Mo Salah in Madrid last week. All three got a chance to play as the central focal point. An all lightweight, fast, intense, slick front-three, that was what Klopp was envisioning; the kind of sharp, speedy, inter-play that led to Liverpool’s winner away at Wolves is the picture-perfect model of how a Mané-Salah-Jota front-three should function.
Against Madrid, it didn’t work. As noted pre-match and as covered in more detail post-match, the slimmed-down front-three makes progressing the ball from the back to the front difficult. Without Firmino dropping off to survey the landscape, the midfield-to-forward line progression became fractured — it’s hard to name any successful front-three in history in which all three members have had roughly the same skill-set. You need a withdrawn forward or a battering-rim to complete the trio.
The lack of stylistic diversity dinged Klopp against Madrid. The front-three pushed and probed, but they played out of step with a midfield trio that looked utterly discombobulated. Not until Thiago Alcanatara and Firmino were brought on did the team start to establish some order.
Firmino is the great connector. It’s what he does. He gathers the ball off the defence or the midfield shuttlers and then threads it on to Liverpool’s out-to-in attacking threats, be it one of the wide forwards or one of the fullbacks.
Against Aston Villa, Firmino was back to his best. It was one of his top all-around displays this season. With Klopp opting for Firmino alongside Jota and Salah, he instantly solved the team’s connectivity issues. Suddenly, the ball was zipping between the lines. Firmino dropped off. Salah and Jota looked to charge into space behind the defensive line. Fabinho and Milner and Wijnaldum, the players charged with bringing defensive order, shuffled the ball along to Firmino early in the possession. It all clicked.
As always when Klopp’s team is really flowing, everything good that Liverpool produced in the build-up phase ran through Bobby. Aston Villa has a hard time locating him, and when they did, Firmino sank into his pass-and-reset mode, that one where he knocks the ball along first time and then takes a step one way, a subtle act of space-contorting cruelty. Touch, slide, gather.
Nobody was happier to have the forward back in the lineup than Fabinho. With Firmino dropping in to create that classic diamond midfield look, Liverpool’s screening midfielder was able to rattle the ball directly between the lines rather than having to shuffle it to the midfielders ahead of him or flipping it outside to one of the fullbacks early in the possession.
Fabinho wound up leading Liverpool in progressive passes on Saturday. But it’s where he was progressing those passes that matter rather than the raw counting metric itself:
Look! That right there captures the brilliance of Firmino. When Fabinho was looking to move the ball forward, when he was looking to get Liverpool on the move, when he was looking to ratchet up the tempo, he fired the ball into the feet of Firmino, who was then tasked with sitting and dishing the ball as he saw fit.
Fabinho led the team in the ‘progressive passing’ field, but it was thanks to Firmino’s movement off the ball and his willingness to withdraw from the forward line that such a passing lane was even possible. It was exactly what was missing against Madrid last week, and it will be exactly what Liverpool need when they face off against Madrid in the second leg on Wednesday.
Saturday saw the return of Liverpool’s great connector to (almost) all his glory. The timing could not have been any better.
Originally published at https://www.liverpool.com on April 12, 2021.