It is not often that your centre-forward doesn’t net one goal at home throughout the Premier League season even as you win the title at a canter and stay in contention to reach the 100-point mark till the very end.
But that is how it has been for Liverpool this year. Jurgen Klopp’s men were, by far, the best team in the country and ended a 30-year wait for the elusive crown, much to the joy of the Anfield faithful.
However, their central striker, the magical Roberto Firmino, only netted eight times in the league during the campaign and has, unbelievably, drawn a blank at home all season.
For any other player, these numbers will be considered ample proof of a below-par season, especially when your attacking partners have netted 17 and 19 goals respectively. However, Roberto Firmino is a different kind of striker. More on that below.
The two other forwards in question are Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, who prefer wider positions to the more centrally located Firmino in Jurgen Klopp’s celebrated triumvirate who have been instrumental in creating a new Liverpool, a team that has claimed the Champions League and the Premier League in consecutive seasons.
The three work together and how. That is why Roberto Firmino’s numbers need to be put into context.
Liverpool’s front three and their overlapping full-backs are a joy to watch in attack. The pace, the vision and the silken passing have proven too much to handle for most defences in England this season. But their off-the-ball work is also crucial.
The forwards begin this relentless pressing that doesn’t let the opposition settle on the ball leading to inexorable turnovers from which the counter-attacking Reds benefit in a huge way.
Here again, their silky and fast-paced passing comes into play. In both these attributes, Roberto Firmino is a vital cog.
Roberto Firmino is the system
For many, Roberto Firmino’s work as a false nine exemplifies the way this new Liverpool play. The Brazilian will never be a target man like a Zlatan Ibrahimovic or a marauding winger like Cristiano Ronaldo.
His influence is often more intangible. He is not your regular 20-goal a season striker. However, what he brings to the table adds to the way Liverpool’s entire attacking system under Jurgen Klopp functions.
For many backroom staff at Anfield, Firminho exemplifies the way the club plays, he is the system. That’s because he operates between the lines, finds those moments of silken vision and initiates the lightning quick transitions that his strike partners feed off.
Consider this, the 28-year-old has only once broken the 20-goal barrier during a highly successful stint at Liverpool.
But, more often than not, his assist count has matched or even crossed his goal output every season. Even this season, he has 12 assists and 11 goals across competitions for the Premier League champions.
It isn’t only the assists though, it is the technical and tactical nous that he brings to the field that matches so well with Klopp’s mode of functioning.
Still, questions remain
Jurgen Klopp was quick to brush aside any concerns regarding Roberto Firminho’s failure to find the net at home in the league before the recent 2-1 loss to Arsenal.
However, the Liverpool that took the field post the pandemic-induced lockdown have shown notable chinks in their armour. They look more vulnerable than their pre-lockdown days.
A big 4-0 defeat to Manchester City and the frustrating loss to Arsenal show that defending the crown next season might be a much tougher task than winning it the first time.
Defensive frailties and difficulties in finding the goal were both evident in these losses.
In such a scenario, more goals from your central marksman might become a necessity and not a luxury. Roberto Firmino is not a Luis Suarez or a Fernando Torres – proven goalscoring centre-forwards who have graced Anfield in recent times.
He brings a different skill set to the table that has been instrumental in Liverpool’s meteoric rise in European football. The trinity of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino function together as a unit.
However, if more teams begin to figure out how to shut out the Reds for three-quarters of a match like Arsenal did, maybe the Brazilian will need to bring more potency in front of goal.