By now everyone is well aware that Liverpool are going through a very rough patch of form.
After devastating Crystal Palace 7-0 at Selhurst Park just before Christmas, their post-festive offerings haven’t been nearly as jolly. They’ve won just one game since Christmas, an FA Cup tie against what amounted to an Aston Villa reserve side. Excluding that, Liverpool have played six games, drawn three, lost three and scored just three goals.
That’s right, three goals in six games. In the Premier League they’ve failed to score in four consecutive matches, a run of form that has seen them fall off the top of the table all the way down to fourth. They’re six points behind league leaders Manchester United, and if Manchester City win their game in-hand and go top the Reds will be seven points off the top.
It’s pure misery, and while many Liverpool fans would be inclined to despair, hope exists in the form of one of their forwards.
No, not Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mané. Those two are still goalscorers; they’ve bagged six of the seven goals Liverpool have scored since Christmas. They haven’t been as prolific as they should be, but they’ve been about.
Roberto Firmino is the key. He’s always been the key.
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Once labelled by Klopp as the only one of his famed attacking trio who was “always world-class” the Brazilian has had a difficult time this season, especially lately where he has looked disconnected; his performance against Man Utd at Anfield was legendarily bad.
Firmino famously didn’t score a goal at Anfield until the last game of the season in 2019/20, and while he’s already done that this season he’s still got only five goals. But goals aren’t why Firmino is so important, though they obviously help.
No, Firmino’s quality is his link-play. The real reason why he is “always world-class” is because when the ball finds him in the final third his anticipation of both the defenders movements as well as those of his team-mates allow him to, when at his best, do some absolutely outrageous things. Flicks, backheels and passes all while looking somewhere else beyond where the ball is going.
The Brazilian was a purely magical player, and still can be. Liverpool’s loss at Old Trafford, while a disappointing result that saw them eliminated from the FA Cup, illustrated Firmino’s brilliance quite perfectly.
Yes, Mohamed Salah scored both of Liverpool’s goals but both passes into him came courtesy of Firmino. Two absolutely stunning passes displaying the depth of Firmino’s creative perception and power. Those two passes were the only times Liverpool truly cut United open and created good chances for Salah, which is exactly why Firmino is so important.
- Age: 29
- Club: Liverpool
- Position: Striker
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Everyone knows Liverpool’s go-to method of chance creation is crossing. They funnel the ball out wide and use their full-backs to create danger. The thing is crosses are an inefficient way to create chances; they work and are low-risk, which is why people make use of them, but you have to send in several crosses to get results.
And if your crossers aren’t in the best of form, as Liverpool’s aren’t at the moment, then you’re going to have trouble creating really good chances. Man Utd have played two games against Liverpool recently and not conceded a single goal from a wide cross, easily repelling the balls hoiked into the area.
Firmino was always the alternative source of creativity in the middle of the pitch. When crosses weren’t working you could feed the ball into Firmino and he would redirect it to where it needed to be. That may be directly, or it may be him conducting traffic to enable an attack to develop. He was the hub at the heart of the attack that enabled Salah and Mané to stay in easy chances.
That, in turn, meant Salah and Mané were more serene when shooting as they knew Firmino would ensure that they were well supplied. Since the start of last season only Andrew Robertson (13) has more open play assists than Firmino (11) and none of the front three was dispossessed as little as he was (58 times vs. 94 and 113 for Mané and Salah respectively).
Simply put: Firmino wins the ball back (46 possessions won in the final third since the start of last season, more than any team-mate) looks after the ball and he looks after his team-mates. That’s why his poor run of form has led to Liverpool struggling in front of goal; the Reds have been relying on crosses alone with Firmino more of a passenger. Which is obviously a problem.
All that changed at Old Trafford, however. The Brazilian’s two assists were sumptuous and conjured almost from nothing. The second was so good it could have been an assist for James Milner before the Englishman’s lovely leave let it run through to Salah. The first a pass of unimaginable quality punishing only the tiniest error in the United defence.
Roberto Firmino is the key to getting Liverpool’s attack firing again, and if the assists at Old Trafford are any indication he just might be ready to find his groove again. And if he does, you can expect Liverpool to start climbing the table with their fabulous front three in harmony again thanks to their legendary link-man.