Putting into words how best to describe Roberto Firmino’s position in the Liverpool team has been an enigma for much of his five years on Merseyside.
A player with such unique raw talent has become so integral to how Jurgen Klopp’s team functions that he has clocked up more appearances under the German boss than any other player since his tenure began as manager in 2015.
However, despite the undeniable quality Firmino brings to the team, there is no escaping the reality that he has been off the pace in recent weeks to the usual devastating standards supporters have become accustomed to other the past three seasons.
The Brazilian’s struggles early this season may be due to a lack of pre-season or a rare case of burnout considering Firmino featured in every Premier League and Champions League match last season.
Too often this season, Firmino has looked isolated up-front and has been ineffective in bringing himself into the game, and at various points this season he has been a peripheral figure for Liverpool.
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Liverpool haven’t played to Firmino’s strengths as of yet, and the player himself hasn’t covered himself in glory either.
That is why it was so refreshing to see Firmino’s qualities allowed to flourish in a system that put more emphasis in the attack.
How has it played out?
Firmino started behind Mohamed Salah in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Sheffield United with Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane both occupying the wing positions.
This prompted a change of system which incorporates a greater attacking impetus from the front to take off the pressure from a defensive quartet which currently has Joe Gomez as the team’s only available senior central defensive option.
What made this work for Firmino was that he had more forward options to open more pockets of space for him to pick passes in-between.
This is something we have previously seen work when Philippe Coutinho was in the team nearly three years ago.
Firmino had both Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum behind him, freeing Liverpool’s attackers to influence the game in the final third.
Firmino got on the scoresheet for the first time this season following his positional change. He also covered more ground and made more sprints than any other Liverpool player.
Add in Thiago Alcantara, and this is a finely balanced tactical system that has an ideal blend from defence to attack and could give Liverpool the platform to go on and win game after game.
The challenge for Klopp
The difficulty for the Liverpool boss is that injuries have so far limited Klopp in experimenting to uncover his best team to suit the 4-2-3-1 formation.
Fabinho’s hamstring problem against FC Midtjylland last night has complicated matters even further for the manager with 19-year-old Rhys Williams expected to step up in the Brazilian’s absence.
There is also the question of who is best suited to control the midfield if Liverpool are forced to reduce their usual triumvirate to just a double act.
Putting Fabinho’s injury into perspective, it is likely if both are fit and available, Thiago and Henderson represent Klopp’s best options to dictate possession well enough in midfield to ensure the Reds can benefit with another option in attack.
With Firmino taking up more responsibility to receive the ball higher up the pitch, Liverpool have then three attacking options to run off the No.9 and create more options going forward.
The Premier League champions have the quantity and quality of attackers to do so, and while this puts pressure on the full-backs to get up and down the flanks, this could also benefit Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
For all the discussion about rediscovering the brilliant side of Firmino’s game, Klopp’s latest tactical tweak could be the best solution for Liverpool given their growing number of injuries.
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