Is this player the key to Liverpool’s attack?

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Roberto Firmino

Jack Hallows believes that Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino is so key to his side, that his dip in form has been effecting the rest of the attack. 

I’m always worried when I see any key star at this club having an off spell but to see that Roberto Firmino, my favourite Liverpool player and the undoubted lynchpin of our attack, is struggling is nothing short of extremely frustrating.

The Brazilian is the key player in this Liverpool side and while he doesn’t post quite the same numbers as Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mané when they’re on form, the former Hoffenheim attacker is absolutely pivotal to the way that his manager likes to operate.

The fact that he’s generally looked so far off the pace this season is worrying to say the least given his generally impressive engine and the amount he offers in a pressing capacity.

When the Reds were at their most devastating last season, Firmino was operating in that ‘not-so false nine’ role that he filled so brilliantly.

The way he ghosted around the pitch, creating space for his team mates, tracking back to win the ball and lay it off to onrushing midfielders or darting into the box to contribute to elaborate passing moves that often ended in goals was such a beautiful sight.

Highlighting his defensive contribution in the press, Firmino averaged 1.8 successful tackles and won 1.8 aerial duels per game along with an interception every 180 mins during the Reds Champions League and Premier League campaigns.

He also averaged 2.7 shots per 90 across the two competitions and showcased his creative streak by averaging a key pass roughly every 60 minutes he was on the pitch that season.

While his game isn’t always about end product, he ended the season with his best ever return of 27 goals and 17 assists – a goal contribution every 95 minutes.

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So far this season, his numbers in every single one of those departments are worryingly low in comparison and while his love affair with the Champions League continues, his end product looks to have fallen off a cliff domestically.

‘Bobby’s’ four goal contributions (two goals, two assists) have come in 829 minutes on the pitch, a rate of one every 207 minutes. He’s also not scored or assisted in the competition since the Reds trip to Wembley six weeks ago.

Even the underlying stats don’t look good with the Reds no.9 also averaging 1.1 key passes (1.8 in 17/18), 1.7 shots (2.3 in 17/18), less than a shot per game in the opposition penalty area and perhaps most worryingly, his defensive numbers are almost non-existent.

To be fair though, stats are only part of the parcel and watching a player will also provide you with a far better idea of how they’re going than a bunch of numbers and averages will.

Unfortunately for Bobby, it’s still not good viewing.

The Brazilian was on the scoresheet against Red Star and dominated inferior opposition but he was poor against Cardiff and even worse on Saturday evening.

So what’s causing his problems?

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A new position? 

As mentioned previously, Firmino operated for much of last season playing as a false nine and even a more traditional striker towards the end of the campaign.

He still pressed like a madman from the front but the presence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the Reds’ midfield meant that the Brazilian was able to stay higher up the pitch, concentrating on getting close to Salah and Mané.

This allowed him to drag central defenders out of position, creating space for others while also putting him into goalscoring positions with much more regularity.

With Klopp’s men lining up in a 4-3-3 practically every week, Firmino was very much the tip of the spearhead.

This season however, there’s been a massive change in how the Reds have operated with the manager seemingly opting for solidity over chaos and it looks that Firmino has taken a hit more than most.

The Reds no.9 no longer operates as an out-and-out striker, instead playing as some kind of number 10/second striker depending on the system.

Liverpool’s 4-3-3 is no longer a staggered midfield and a flat front three with license to create havoc. It’s now far more akin to almost a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond shape with Firmino the link man between midfield and attack, having to drop deep to pick the ball up, turn and look for the limited options ahead of him.

It’s a tactic that has been used right from the off this season.

Roberto Firmino's heat map against West Ham United
Roberto Firmino’s heat map against West Ham United

Above is Firmino’s heat map on the opening day of the season. Of his 47 touches of the ball, just ten were in the 18 yard box or just outside. The rest were either in his own half or in the midfield third of the pitch.

By contrast, Salah had 15 touches either inside the 18-yard box or just outside, while Mané had 18.

Here’s a basic look at how Liverpool’s ‘433’ formation lined up that day:

 

Liverpool's 4-3-3 has looked more like a diamond this season
Liverpool’s 4-3-3 has looked more like a diamond this season

You can clearly see that Liverpool’s full-backs are used to create the width, while Salah and Mané almost operate more as strikers in the semi-traditional sense with Firmino in behind to complete a four man midfield.

The formation is certainly more solid, making the Reds harder to play through in midfield and giving opposition sides little option to do anything else but lump the ball long and hope. This tactic may have worked yesteryear but with the pace this Liverpool side has at it’s disposal in defence, it’s a far tougher strategy to pull off.

However, as we’ve seen on plenty of occasions so far, sacrificing Firmino for solidity has made the attack dysfunctional at best.

Restore the front 3 or change formation? 

For me, Klopp has two options.

The first is to persevere with his preferred midfield three but alter the personnel and strategy involved.

In this formation, Firmino simply must be restored to playing up top properly.

His presence in and around the opposition box opens up space for Salah in particular to make late diagonal runs from out to in, cutting between centre back and full-back and opening up goalscoring opportunities.

Firmino is incredible at holding the ball up higher up the field and his ability to body defenders, turn them and play accurate through balls with perfect weight is a priceless commodity when you possess two of world football’s fastest wingers.

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When situated closer to opposition defenders, Firmino is also far better suited to the pressing game – something that Klopp absolutely has to re-implement, even if not to the exact same intensity as last season.

A number of Liverpool’s goals last season – especially in Europe – were created by Firmino pressing and harrying opposition defenders into making a mistake.

Remember the Brazilian’s goal at the Etihad to eliminate Manchester City? He stormed up to get close to Otamendi, robbed the Argentine of the ball and was straight in on goal. 2-1 Liverpool, game, set and match.

In order to do this, Klopp also needs to pick a better midfield.

James Milner, Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson are all great workhorses and all three serve a purpose but generally, it’s not a unique purpose. All three simply cannot play together – especially when creativity is required.

The return of Naby Keïta to fitness means Klopp simply must start giving the Guinean minutes as his game is not only perfectly suited to Liverpool but he possesses all the traits to completely transform this midfield once he gets going.

The second option is to do away with the 4-3-3 altogether and make the 4-2-3-1 that we’ve seen in recent weeks become the German’s go to formation.

Again though, personnel changes are needed.

Fabinho has to start in this formation with one of Wijnaldum or Keïta alongside him while I’m also of the opinion that Xherdan Shaqiri should also be involved in one of the supporting trio spots.

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Whether Shaqiri starts on the right, Salah up top and Firmino in the 10, or the Swiss starts behind Firmino with Salah on the right hand side, Klopp needs to find a way to get all four into the team if the 4-2-3-1 is to be at full effect.

Ask the full backs to sacrifice some of their attacking intent – not all, just some – to allow for the extra solidity that the German desires and let the attacking quadrant do their job.

Whatever he ends up opting for, Klopp needs to stop sacrificing his most important piece in the high-profile game of chess that is attempting to win the Premier League.

Roberto Firmino simply must be restored to a position where he can start influencing this side to his full ability and fulfil the attacking potential we know that he has. Liverpool’s trophy hopes depend on it.

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