Analysis: Roberto Firmino's struggles in front of goal
(Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images)

After 86 minutes at Anfield on Saturday evening, with Liverpool and Leeds locked at 3-3, the defending champions are probing.

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane exchange passes, and find Roberto Firmino's incisive run into the Leeds area. From about seven yards out, he tries to be too clever, attempting a flicked finish back across goal. It's blocked behind.

From the resulting corner, Rodrigo trips Fabinho and gives away a penalty which Salah duly converts to finally settle the contest in Liverpool's favour. And so Firmino is largely spared criticism.

But extracted from the context of victory, Firmino's charitable finish is the latest in a concerning trend.

Virtually every Liverpool fan has come to appreciate the Brazilian's integral role in Jurgen Klopp's system, which extends far beyond goalscoring.

Indeed, Salah and Mane have almost become the designated matchwinners whilst Firmino is the facilitator, dropping off to link play or to create space. In these departments, he has consistently excelled.

Supporters have long scoffed at statistical comparisons between Firmino and the other high-profile players to wear number nine in the Premier League - Alexandre Lacazette, Anthony Martial and Gabriel Jesus for example. And to an extent they're right to do so, because Firmino is not a striker.

But the fact remains - in a team where he is furnished with plentiful opportunities, he must score more goals. 

The stats are telling

A look at the figures from Firmino's three full seasons as part of the current front three reveals a slightly alarming decline in his finishing ability.

In 2017/18 - his finest goalscoring season to date - he scored 15 in the league having missed seven 'big chances' (usually a one-on-one or an unobstructed close-range effort).

In all, he impressively managed to outperform his expected goal tally by 4.24, according to Understat.

The following season, his output dropped to 12, and he spurned nine big chances, this time underperforming his xG by 1.74.

And last year, his goal tally dropped by another three while he shot into the top three of the 'big chances missed' column with a whopping 20.

Only Jesus (24) and Tammy Abraham (22) missed more.

Having fallen short of his total xG by as much as 7.69, he wound up 26th in the league's scoring charts when he really ought to have been in the top 10.

His shooting accuracy (his shots on target against his total attempts) also dropped from 45% to 39%.

A closer look at the 'big misses'

Firmino endured a notable goal drought on home soil last season, failing to find the net in any competition until March and only breaking his Premier League duck against Chelsea at the last opportunity.

There was a sign of things to come on opening night when newly-promoted Norwich visited Anfield.

In the still below, Trent Alexander-Arnold has just driven to the byline and teed-up Firmino for what looked an inevitable goal.

But you can see that the Brazilian has overrun the cross, and he ends up rather embarrassingly slicing the ball wide after he turns. 

The next stills are more instructive. They come from the early-season trip to Sheffield United, which eventually saw the Reds scrape a 1-0 victory.

Mohamed Salah finds room and drives forward before offloading the ball to Firmino, who has an opportunity to take aim at the left corner before the defender can get across.

But Firmino does not back himself. Instead, he takes a touch inside and the bottom-left opening is virtually gone. Rather than shooting, he lays it off to Sadio Mane, who hits the post.

It's not a particularly bad decision - Mane should certainly have scored - and often Firmino's selflessness is a virtue. But you could also interpret it, particularly with hindsight, as a lack of belief in his own finishing abilities relative to Salah and Mane.

In the Champions League, another huge chance to get off the mark at Anfield goes begging.

Alexander-Arnold picks up the ball in space, and Liverpool's attackers know what to do next: make a run in-behind. Firmino's movement is excellent, and the threaded pass leaves him with a chance to coolly side-foot past the onrushing goalkeeper.

But, again, he scuffs it and the 'keeper is able to gather.

Just three days later, there's more frustration. 

Liverpool needed a last-gasp James Milner penalty to beat Leicester, but they could have been more comfortable had Firmino buried this chance.

It's another fine ball from the right and yet again the movement deserves credit, but the shot at the end of it - which goes harmessly wide - does not.

Later in October, Liverpool drop points for the first time, with substitute Adam Lallana snatching a point at Old Trafford.

Manchester United took the lead through Marcus Rashford, but that was only after this opening had come to nothing.

Sadio Mane raced away down the right and found Firmino in plenty of space with his pull-back. A first-time sidefoot shot from this excellent position is easily gathered by David de Gea and United survive.

The visits of Spurs and Brighton did not bring any reprieve, with Firmino consistently finding room but not the finish.

2020 began against Sheffield Utd, and by this point Firmino must have started to feel cursed.

Similar to the opening day, he's awaiting an Alexander-Arnold delivery at the back post, and nearly finds himself in 1.00xG territory, but he can't sort his feet out.

When Firmino blazed over here - he ought to have settled a nervy and much-needed win against Bournemouth in March - there was audible anguish and frustration from 50,000 inside Anfield.

Firmino had played himself into a rut in Premier League home matches.

He latched onto this ball from Salah against Burnley in July and struck the far post after failing to make entirely clean contact. That end result felt inevitable.

So, what does this barrage of screengrabs tell us? 

Put simply, it tells us that Firmino is sorely lacking in confidence. Yes, the Roberto Firmino who attempts at least one outrageous flick per game is lacking confidence.

Last season's home drought became self-perpetuating as Firmino's usually dazzling technique deserted him when the net seemed bound to bulge.

Indeed, most of the misses highlighted result plainly from a lack of composure. 

And yet, he still managed to net some vital goals, including winners away to Spurs and Wolves in the season-defining month of January and the strike to clinch the Club World Cup in guitar.

But it is clear that, for whatever reason, none of those goals have fully replenished his confidence as you might expect.

It will certainly not be easy for Klopp to unlock the kind of 18-yard-box form which saw Firmino find the net 27 times across all competitions in 17/18.

Perhaps a serious display of competition from the ever-improving Takumi Minamino could feasibly instigate a response. 

Whatever Klopp's approach, this needs to be addressed. Firmino's increasing profligacy has rarely cost the Reds, but that will surely change as the table condenses at the sharp end.

With Chelsea and Arsenal lying in wait on matchday two and three, the start of Liverpool's title defence looks likely to swing on fine margins.

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