How Roberto Firmino evolved into Jurgen Klopp’s perfect No.9

Mohamed Salah will get much of the plaudits at Liverpool this season, and rightly so. But the impact of Roberto Firmino in a central role cannot go unignored.

The self-sacrificing Brazilian has been sensational under Klopp this season, finally filling in the gap left by Luis Suarez’s departure in 2014, despite not being an orthodox centre-forward.

Such has been his impact, Firmino was rewarded with a new contract on Sunday, reportedly worth £180,000 a week on a five-year deal, which reportedly makes him the club’s joint-highest earner alongside Virgil van Dijk. It is a financial reward that reflects the level of his improvement this season, and the esteem in which he is held by the Liverpool manager. As Jurgen Klopp said in February, “Mo Salah [is] world class, but not every day. Sadio Mane, world class, but not every day. Roberto Firmino, world class, pretty much every day.”

So in what ways has Firmino’s game changed so much to have left such an impression on Klopp?

Firmino the pre-Klopp flop

Originally signed in the summer of 2015 for £29 million by Brendan Rodgers, Firmino was an attacking midfielder who usually occupied one of the three spaces behind the club’s recognised strikers.

At that time, Liverpool had the likes of Christian Benteke, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Ings and Divock Origi to call upon in leading their line, though for varying reasons none were ever truly able to fill in for Luis Suarez following his departure in 2014.

Firmino’s time working under Rodgers not without criticism – he was named one of the worst signings of the 2015 transfer window by the Telegraph – and lasted only three months. The Northern Irishman was sacked in October 2015 following a poor start to the season and despite describing him as a “great manager” Firmino, who himself failed to score a single competitive goal under Rodgers, subsequently said this was a necessary dismissal.

The Klopp era ushered in by ‘the Red Arrows’

The transformation from would-be flop under Rodgers to the player we know today was not instant, however. Although Klopp was the man to take over, the Brazilian continued to play as an attacking midfielder as most of Rodgers’ squad remained did not witness drastic changes for the rest of the season. Firmino would end the season 2015/16 on 11 goals from 49 games in all competitions, yet there were signs of his talent for providing attacking teammates with assists, of which he recorded seven in the league that term, as well as his tenacity; the current No.9 having won 67 tackles, more than any other Premier League forward except Erik Lamela.

One watershed performance that provided a glimpse of what would come two years down the line came against Manchester City in November shortly after Klopp’s arrival. Then Citzens were beaten 1-4 at the Etihad as Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Firmino – the latter two of whom scored – tore them to shreds in the guise of a narrow front three likened to the Red Arrows by Jamie Carragher. This was not the only favourable comparison made by Liverpool defender turned Sky Sports pundit.

“For Liverpool supporters in their 40s or 50s, [Firmino’s] run is Ian Rush running on to a Kenny Dalglish or Jan Mølby pass. A straight pass [from Coutinho] to a diagonal run,” said Carragher.

“It was like the Red Arrows watching Liverpool those runs going through people all the time.”

Firmino begins to take centre-stage

But Klopp’s project at Liverpool only truly started in his first full season in charge (2016/17) as he was allowed to make the changes to the team he felt were necessary.

Out went Benteke, and Firmino would begin to be tested in a central role when filling in for the oft-injured Sturridge.

The Brazilian scored six of his 11 Premier League goals that season when starting as the focal point of the Liverpool attack.

Overall, his total number of goals grew only slightly, from 10 in the league to 11. Despite seeing off competition from Origi for the central role Firmino was still yet to show his full range of skills. Even Coutinho, who was drawn deeper into central midfield midway through the campaign, outscored his compatriot with 15 goals across all competitions. Firmino had 2016 summer signing Sadio Mane on one side of him, but the left flank was occupied by a rotating cast of Lallana and other fring forwards after Coutinho’s change of role. Something was missing: i.e. a wide forward with an eye for goal, incisive runs and the positional instinct of a poacher.

The short-lived ‘Fab Four’ is born

And so finally, after two seasons at the club Firmino’s transformation, from an underappreciated and skillful workhorse to an underappreciated and skillful workhorse with a goals tally befitting his newly acquired “world-class” label, all came about thanks to the signing of one Mohamed Salah. The £36m Egyptian initially completed Klopp’s quartet along with Firmino, Sadio Mane and Coutinho.

Origi was sent on loan, Sturridge and Ings continued to struggle with injuries and Dominic Solanke was bought but apparently deemed too young to lead the line. Conditions were perfect for Firmino to cement his claim to the centre-forward role.

While occupying the striker’s role, Firmino continues to play the game akin to an attacking midfielder, with a fluid partnership alongside Salah and Mane, whose playing styles are all similar enough to provide a three-pronged attack which currently has defences second-guessing just where exactly they’re meant to be standing.

The Brazilian is often seen dropping deep to pick up the ball or drifting out wide to drag defenders out of shape, opening up the spaces for his attacking teammates.

Devastating on the counter, the three hover around their opposition defenders, waiting for the moment to strike, and when they do they are often prolific.

The goals finally showed up for clinical Firmino

And while still some way off Salah in terms of goals, Firmino is having an amazing season for scoring despite the £145m departure of Coutinho, a player with whom he linked extremely well, to Barcelona.

Playing 50 games so far this season in all competitions, the Brazilian has managed 27 goals – 10 of which have come in the Champions League proper as Liverpool push for the final. That total makes this the best goalscoring season of his career; put into context, it’s more than twice as many as his previous best at Anfield (12).

Strictly sticking to the Premier League, Firmino’s 15 goals sees him as Liverpool’s second top-scorer this season, averaging 0.5 goals per 90 minutes. All 15 of the 26-year-old’s goals have come from inside the penalty box as he often reacts quickest to crosses or finishes off one of Liverpool’s many mesmerising team goals.

Firmino’s goals have also come from just 78 shots (2.7 per 90), 51 of which have been from inside the box, as the Brazilian is beginning to demonstrate a truly clinical edge, picking and choosing his time for shooting to maximise his chances of scoring.

This has seen Firmino record a shot conversion rate of 19%, just 3% worse than Salah (22%) at Liverpool, and better then fellow attacker Mane (15%). Of those above him in the Premier League’s top-scorer list, only Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy has taken fewer shots (62) this season.

Creativity

Given Salah’s particular prowess in front of goal, Firmino has also shown his creative side of the game.

Building on the skills he enhanced as an attacking midfielder, the Brazilian has created 61 chances so far (1.01 per 90), with only Salah (67) having created more for Liverpool in the Premier League this season.

Of those 61 chances created, Firmino has recorded seven assists, five of which have been for his fellow attackers (three for Salah, two for Mane).

This comes down to the Brazilian’s understanding of his team-mates’ playing styles, intertwining with, and finding, them in their best positions for the ultimate benefit of Liverpool.

And again, this has come down to his previous experiences as a winger, giving him a different viewpoint of the game to other centre-forwards in the Premier League.

Only Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku has managed to keep up with Firmino in terms of Premier League assists by centre-forwards, with the Belgian also recording seven.

Firmino has also used his dribbling ability to good effect, completing 69% of his attempted take-ons, at an average of 1.7 completed per 90 minutes.

Defensive work

Despite his improvements relating to goals this season, there have been times where Firmino’s biggest impact on games has been down to his work-rate.

The Brazilian has been one of the top tacklers in the Premier League, winning 63 so far this season, at an average of 2.2 per 90.

This puts him ahead of the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, Eric Dier, Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi. Though it says more about Firmino’s willingness to harry opposing defenders on the ball or track back than any of the aforementioned player’s inability.

The tackles won have come as a result of Liverpool’s free-flowing attacking line, which allows Firmino to track back without hurting the side’s chances of breaking forward in attack, with two more-than-capable players still occupying advanced positions.

Klopp’s perfect No.9

The complete package, Firmino has shown how vital he can be to Liverpool in all aspects of the game and the Brazilian is finally beginning to earn the recognition he deserves for adapting to Klopp’s masterplan.

While the Reds ultimately lost out in the Premier League this season, Champions League glory could be the platform from which Firmino (and Salah) can start to take Liverpool back to the top of English football. The latter may be the star player this year, but the development of Firmino is perhaps Klopp’s masterpiece.