For Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino life cannot be much better for the Brazilian right now.
Despite having just lost one of his best mates in Philippe Coutinho, his efforts this season under Jürgen Klopp see Firmino as now one of the Premier League’s very best strikers, and one of the best all-round number nines in world football.
Firmino has never been viewed as a typical Brazilian, and struggled to get into the Brazil squad until recently. Canarinho have always been blessed with talented forwards, and the current crop is no exception with the likes of Neymar and Gabriel Jesus.
Firmino however has proven this season that he has the capabilities to succeed alongside them in the famous yellow shirt, thanks to his upsurge in form on Merseyside.
No longer can the 26-year-old be viewed as a gifted attacking midfielder who lacks the flair of his compatriots and is too slow for the Premier League. Such accusations were unfair when Firmino arrived in England. Most need time to settle, and Firmino’s early statistics at Liverpool hardly made for unpleasant reading, scoring double figures in both of his first two seasons at the club.
Yet he has caught fire this season, just when some were questioning whether Liverpool needed a new elite striker to replace the fading and unwanted Daniel Sturridge, instead of moving Firmino further up the pitch.
Klopp’s decision to place his trust in Firmino has been a masterstroke, and Firmino has richly rewarded his manager with the best displays of his career.
Klopp’s arrival at the expense of Brendan Rodgers in 2015 delighted Firmino, who had nothing against the Northern Irishman, but Firmino and Klopp always had a soft spot for each other from their time in Germany. Now they could realise their ambitions of working together at Anfield, as Klopp has slowly but surely made Firmino central to his plans for this Liverpool team.
Liverpool’s history is littered with great strikers. Roger Hunt, Ian St John, Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Fernando Torres – to name only a few. Another was Luis Suárez, Liverpool’s last great striking hero.
Suárez’s Liverpool legacy will forever be debated amongst Liverpool supporters, but the Uruguayan improved at Anfield to such an extent that he left for Barcelona in 2014 as arguably the world’s best striker.
Suárez almost led the Reds to their first Premier League title in 24 years, registering successive seasons of at least thirty goals. Yet he did not display such blistering form at the outset in a Liverpool shirt, despite his ridiculous scoring record in Holland with Ajax.
Suárez was as much a creator as a striker under Dalglish, partnering Andy Carroll upfront in his first eighteen months at the club, before Rodgers turned him from a number ten into the best number nine in the Premier League.
Firmino’s path at Liverpool has, so far at least, been remarkably similar. Rodgers, in their short spell together, used him either behind Sturridge or Christian Benteke or even out wide – a position where Firmino has constantly struggled, even now, as he does lack the pace to operate effectively as a winger.
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Conversion to forward
No one really knows whether Firmino was even Rodgers’ signing or from Liverpool’s transfer committee of the time instead, and Rodgers did not seem to know where to play the Brazilian, as he already could count on Adam Lallana and Coutinho as attacking midfielders. Firmino was wasted out wide.
Firmino’s rise began once Klopp arrived at Anfield, with the German moving Firmino towards the top of the pitch in Liverpool’s setup under their new manager. Sturridge’s star status initially complicated matters and slowed Firmino’s transition, but Liverpool always looked at their fluid best in Klopp’s first season when Firmino played as a false nine with Coutinho and Lallana swarming relentlessly around him in a front three.
Last season, Firmino’s progression continued, with Sadio Mané’s arrival adding to the pace and penetration of Liverpool’s attack, while boosting the creativity from midfield as Lallana dropped further back.
Firmino still struggled to be clinical in front of goal however, with Mané in particular leading the Reds back into the top four and the Champions League.
Firmino could have reached a crossroads in his Anfield career this summer, but Klopp’s iron-clad belief in his tireless Brazilian never wavered. Instead of a new world-class striker arriving at Anfield, Firmino was instead handed the number nine shirt, and has not looked back since.
He has taken all of the experience and skills that he has developed under Klopp as a false nine and added the instincts of a true striker this season, creating an all-round package so reminiscent of Suárez at his absolute peak. Firmino’s goal against Manchester City last weekend utterly underlines the above.
Deputy to Salah
For all the plaudits saluting Mohamed Salah’s electric start in a Liverpool shirt, alongside the recent stardom of Coutinho before his January move to Barcelona, Firmino has become the crux of Klopp’s Liverpool, just as Suárez was for Rodgers.
Both Klopp’s current crop and Rodgers 13/14 side were blessed with devastating attacks and dodgy defences, capable of operating with the highest speed and intensity.
Firmino’s statistics this season are comparable with Suárez’s from 2012-14, with seventeen goals and nine assists in all competitions (more than Chelsea’s Álvaro Morata and Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette and level with Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku) – incredible for a player who is supposedly not a proper striker.
Firmino undoubtedly is, but the illusion actually stems from his ability to be more than just a number nine, such is the level he now operates at, while emphasising his importance to Klopp and Liverpool’s attacking play.
The work-ethic, third season elevation, centrality to an aggressive, pacey and exciting team, all-round style – so Firmino is the new Suárez?
Suárez’s consistency, for Liverpool and now Barcelona, underlines the level that Firmino has to maintain, and, currently, he is less of a leader on the pitch than Suárez is. Yet Firmino continues to grow in every department, and clearly enjoys playing in this Liverpool team, thriving under Klopp’s tutelage.
No forward in Europe’s top five leagues has made more tackles than Firmino, showing that he does try to lead from the front, having overtaken Lallana as Klopp’s vital player when deploying Liverpool’s fearsome pressing game.
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Can Firmino become club legend?
Can Firmino go beyond what Suárez did at Liverpool? Absolutely. Eventually Firmino will reach his peak, but his progression shows no sign of slowing for the moment, and Klopp is building his Liverpool team to win trophies for the long-term, whereas the likes of Suárez and Steven Gerrard made Rodgers’ side less sustainable.
Firmino could one day follow Suárez and Coutinho to Spain, but hopefully Liverpool’s period of selling star players is over with Klopp and his signings. Technically Firmino was not a Klopp signing for Liverpool, but in reality he is unquestionably a Klopp player – and the true successor to Suárez.
A new contract should be a formality for the Kop’s favourite Brazilian, and he has the chance to make himself an undisputed legend, in the manner Suárez failed to achieve.