Jack Hallows analyses the positives and negatives of Roberto Firmino remaining Liverpool’s first-choice number nine next season.
Firmino is one of my favourite players at Liverpool Football Club. He’s an absolute joy to watch when he’s playing well and was the first Reds player I saw score live in person at my first ever match in January 2016.
However, we may need to talk about him remaining the club’s first-choice number nine through the 2017/18 season rather than bringing in a striker for him to operate behind.
The positive spin
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of positives to playing Roberto Firmino through the middle of the park in an adaptation of the modern false nine. Especially when flanked by a duo as frightening as Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah.
The Brazilian is honestly everything that Jürgen Klopp could possibly want in a number nine.
He presses hard, often leading the pack from the front and shutting down centre backs while the likes of Lallana, Mané and Coutinho cut out passing lanes and contribute to the asphyxiating nature of Klopp’s famous ‘Gegenpress.’
He’s also superb at winning the ball back when he does press and closes the angles intelligently in a way that his other forward thinking teammates don’t always manage.
He won an impressive 41 tackles in the Premier League last season – more than one per game – and further proved his in-game intelligence by making 22 interceptions. It didn’t seem to matter if he was playing left wing or as the false nine, he always seemed to manage to find a way to shut down opposition defenders and midfielders.
Then, of course, there’s what he can do on the ball.
The Brazilian is an incredible dribbler of the football and while there are times when his first touch can look sloppy and lazy, he generally moves with an elegance about him when in full flow.
He completed an impressive 70 take-ons in the league last season – exactly 2 per game – and his quick feet often see him navigate tight spaces both in and around the box with ease. His dribbling and movement also saw him win penalties away at Spurs and Swansea.
Firmino impressively topped the Reds creative charts last season, which is made all the more surreal by the fact that he doesn’t have any set piece involvement.
Despite only registering seven assists, the Brazilian managed to create a total of 76 chances in the Premier League for teammates last season – which says a lot more about the wasteful nature of his teammates at times than his creativity.
Of these 76 chances, a third were created inside the opposition penalty area, while a further 46% were created from central areas of the pitch just outside the box.
This confirms just how good Firmino is at slipping balls in behind for teammates to run onto and picking the intelligent pass inside the opposition box.
Firmino was seemingly also able to just perform better when played through the middle of the park. Whoscored.com – a stats and player ratings website – rated Firmino on average as a 7.57/10 when played as the number nine and he registered 6 goals and 6 assists from 20 league appearances in a central role.
In Firmino’s 14 appearances from wide, he failed to make the same impact, scoring 4 goals and assisting just one.
Now, onto the parts of Firmino’s game that could certainly be improved.
You’ll notice I left a lot of talk about Firmino’s shooting and goalscoring out of the positive section. This is because despite finishing the season with 12 goals in all competitions, the Brazilian needs to become far more adept in front of goal if it is to become a truly devastating part of his game.
To be fair to Firmino, he has generally managed to impress numbers-wise when used through the middle over the past two seasons, scoring 13 of his 21 goals when played as a striker – and a further three when played in behind one in 2015/16.
However, his shot accuracy of 65% and conversion rate of 16% was just simply not good enough last season.
He spurned big chances away at Southampton and Manchester City, as well as two awful home blunders against Chelsea, costing the Reds a total of six points across the campaigns and while his composure at times is ice cold, there are others that make you question what was going through his head at the time.
The fact that Sadio Mané managed to outscore the Brazilian from almost half his shots – 57 to 100 – tells you all you need to know about his need for improved composure during the next campaign.
Another negative to using Firmino as the sole number nine is the lack of alternatives in Klopp’s current squad. The Brazilian endured a horrible winter period due to what can only be described as burnout from playing so much football and the Reds attacking play suffered majorly as a result.
With Daniel Sturridge having become more of a ‘fox in the box’ style centre-forward and Divock Origi frustratingly just as far from resembling a finished product as he was this time 18 months ago, Klopp has very few alternatives if Firmino’s form tails off or even worse: he goes down injured.
The 4-4-2 diamond with Origi and Sturridge up top together has been used previously by the German to great effect but then, where do Salah and Mané fit in? Having this plethora of attacking talent is not the worst problem to have but it’s certainly major food for thought.
As frustrated as I initially felt to hear that Klopp wasn’t planning on adding to his centre-forward ranks this summer, seeing the positives of Firmino in the number nine role for the foreseeable future laid out in front of me and outweighing the negatives has certainly done wonders for winning me over.
If the Brazilian can improve his finishing composure – he should really be aiming to hit 15 goals or more next season – and keep himself injury free, then I see no reason why a front three of Mané, Firmino and Salah, supported by the likes of Coutinho and Lallana can’t flourish this season.
What do you think? Should ‘Bobby’ remain the club’s first-choice number nine next season? Or should the club sign an out and out striker?