Roberto Firmino was not supposed to be Liverpool’s go-to man this season. If widespread reports were anything to go by, Firmino himself did not even envisage himself being at Anfield this campaign.
And yet here we are, midway through October, and no Liverpool player – not even the £350,000-a-week Mohamed Salah, despite his record-breaking six-minute hat-trick against Rangers – has played a part in more goals in all competitions this season than Firmino’s eight.
Far from being the odd man out following the arrivals of Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez this year, Firmino has regularly stepped up for the Reds this season and is surely in contention to start Sunday’s Premier League showdown against Manchester City.
Liverpool quite simply have to win at Anfield, where Firmino will come face-to-face with Europe’s hottest striker in Erling Haaland, a player boasting 20 goals – six more than anyone else in Europe’s top-five leagues – from his 13 appearances for City and feeling refreshed after a midweek rest.
Ahead of the meeting between the Premier League’s two most dominant forces over the past four seasons, we look at Firmino’s figures in more detail and just why he may hold the key to Liverpool getting the better of the champions.
KLOPP’S FAITH PAYS OFF
Amid all the noise surrounding Firmino’s future heading into the 2022-23 campaign, with Juventus said to be in advanced talks to sign him, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp branded the forward “the heart and soul” of the team.
No wonder the German thinks so highly of the 31-year-old, with no Liverpool player playing more games (332), featuring for more minutes (23,899) or registering more assists (70) during Klopp’s seven years in charge.
The arrivals of Diaz and Nunez, plus the impressive form of Diogo Jota, looked as though it would curtail Firmino’s playing time, but he started three of Liverpool’s opening four matches of the campaign, including the Community Shield win over City.
Firmino failed to register a single goal or assist in any of those matches, yet he retained the faith of Klopp – albeit helped by Jota being injured and Nunez suspended – and truly kick-started his campaign in the 9-0 thrashing of Bournemouth at the end of August.
In that game, a joint-record winning margin for a side in Premier League history, Firmino became the first Liverpool player to be directly involved in four goals in the first half of a match in the competition en route to scoring two and assisting three. If a reminder was needed of Firmino’s qualities, this was very much it.
An important equaliser followed in Liverpool’s next match, a late 2-1 win over Newcastle United; two goals to drag Liverpool back from two goals down in a 3-3 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion; another equaliser, this time in defeat to Arsenal; and then another two-goal and an assist showing in the 7-1 midweek Champions League rout of Rangers.
Those 12 goals and assists in all competitions is level with Salah’s tally for the season, and double that of next-best Diaz, who has started three games more than the Brazil international. Per minute, no Liverpool player is performing better this season in an attacking sense.
FIRMINO THE FOCAL POINT
Perhaps most remarkable of all as focus turns to Liverpool’s meeting with City, Firmino is only one goal short of Haaland’s tally for October (five goals compared to six). Across clubs from Europe’s top-five leagues, when taking all competitions into account, Monaco’s Wissam Ben Yedder is the only other player with five or more goals this month.
Firmino’s five goals have come from an expected goals (xG) value of 1.43, incidentally, compared to six from an xG of 3.03 for Haaland – a difference of 3.57 and 2.97 respectively, suggesting the quality of Firmino’s chances have been lower than those teed up for Haaland.
That is not to say Firmino is in the same league as Haaland right now – who is? – but on a personal level this is by some way his best start to a campaign for Liverpool. His eight goals after 11 games is at least two more than he has managed in his previous seven seasons at Anfield, while only in 2019-20 has he had more assists than his four this term.
But exactly why is that? Playing against a Bournemouth side unable to defend any balls into the box has admittedly skewed the figures somewhat, though it is clear to see that Firmino’s game has also changed this season compared to last.
Just under 11 per cent of his touches of the ball in the Premier League this season have come within the width of the goal inside the penalty area, which is an increase on a figure of six per cent last time out. It was further back last season, and more towards the right, that he more occasionally touched the ball.
Indeed, all eight of his goals this season have come from that central zone inside the box – one via his head, three with his left foot and four with his right.
Another interesting aspect of Firmino’s game this season has been his movement, or more specifically his off-the-ball runs into the penalty area. He has made 89 of them in the Premier League in his 468 minutes on the field, which is the most per 90 minutes (17.1) of any player, followed by Haaland (14.1).
That may well be a tactic Liverpool will aim to take full advantage of against City, a side in which Firmino has scored or assisted against seven times in 14 top-flight appearances – only versus Arsenal (13 combined) does he have a better record against among top-five clubs.
So while plenty of the build-up to Sunday’s showdown will – justifiably – be centred around Haaland and his remarkable scoring run, Liverpool will have born-again Bobby to call upon in a game they simply must win if they are to keep alive any hopes of challenging for the title.