Roberto Firmino: From Mocked 'Defensive Forward' To Trophy-Lifting Trailblazer

Liverpool, and the Premier League, won't be the same without 'Bobby'
12:28, 05 Jul 2023

While it had been an open secret for a while, former Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino’s move to Al-Ahli is now official. The latest big name signing for the Saudi Pro League, he leaves behind a legacy that extends further than his 82 goals in 256 Premier League games. Firmino arrived as a player the Premier League didn’t quite know what to do with. He leaves as a trailblazing example of the evolution of the centre forward role on these shores.

During his time in Germany with Hoffenheim, Firmino was not really a striker at all. Of his 153 games for Der Blau, only nine of them saw him deployed up front. A creative linking presence from the number ten position or occasionally out wide, Firmino had proven capable of scoring goals. He netted 22 times in 37 games during the 2013/14 season. But largely he was viewed as more of a creator than a poacher.


When Brendan Rodgers signed Firmino for £21.3 million in the summer of 2015, it was largely with the wide-right berth in mind. Of the six Premier League games the Brazil international played ahead of Rodgers’ October sacking, he played five of them on the wing. The outlier was a substitute appearance playing off Christian Benteke as a second striker in a 1-0 win over Stoke City.

When Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp took over from the departing Rodgers, it was like a switch was flicked. Firmino would not play as a winger in the Premier League for the remainder of the season. Used exclusively centrally, Firmino alternated between playing as an attacking midfielder, a more advanced second striker or leading the line. While he had not yet perfected the formula, Klopp knew Firmino was a capable presence through the middle.

The player was used there primarily during Klopp’s first full season in charge, though he did make nine league appearances nominally on the left wing. It was here that the branching narrative of Firmino truly began. His manager and Liverpool fans applauded the tenacity and workrate that was proving a vital part of Klopp’s system. Meanwhile, rivals fans looked suspiciously at his relatively modest goal numbers and mockingly used Klopp’s praise to deride the “defensive striker”.

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It was a strange attitude to take given Lionel Messi had largely risen to prominence as a false nine. It is indicative of how English football has often been guilty of a parochial attitude to tactics. See also the schadenfreude on display when Pep Guardiola’s methods didn’t take in his first season at Manchester City. It is largely the contributions of Klopp and Guardiola that have opened this country’s eyes to broader tactical ideas. By the time Chris Wilder steered a Sheffield United side into the Premier League that played with overlapping centre backs, England finally felt ready to embrace such brave innovation.

An affable character, Firmino never let the way he was perceived effect his performances. As Klopp polished and refined his style, turning the cacophonous “heavy metal football” of his Dortmund days into a more radio-friendly, Foo Fighters-style sleekness, Firmino was central to the process. Often literally. His time on the wing was becoming less frequent. As Philippe Coutinho was sold, he was given a bigger role attacking through the middle.

The making of Firmino was the signing of his two greatest foils. Southampton winger Sadio Mane had signed a year after him, in 2016. The following season, Roma’s Mohamed Salah completed a triumvirate that would take Liverpool to heights they hadn’t seen since the 1980s. Like Firmino, Salah was initially criticised. Rival fans wondered openly why the Merseysiders had bought a “Chelsea flop”. But both men, along with Mane, would prove all the doubters wrong.

Already a vital cog in Klopp’s machine, the way Firmino’s particular set of skills gelled with those of his new teammates took Liverpool to paradise. Salah’s irrepressible wide goal threat, Mane’s industry and finishing acumen and Firmino’s energy and creativity were a match made in heaven. All three were strikers and yet none of them were strikers. Three players miscast as midfielders and wingers found Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup success as forwards. The greatest attacking trio since Barcelona fielded ex-Red Luis Suarez, Neymar and Messi. It is no coincidence that, in the latter, Barca had played with a forward who enjoyed the false nine role as much as Firmino.

A trophy-laden era in Liverpool’s history is now coming to an end. Mane left last summer and is now tipped for a reunion with Firmino at Al-Ahli. Salah remains as the lone bastion of the iconic trio, now adapting to life alongside the likes of Darwin Nunez, Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota. But beyond the mountain of medals, Firmino carved out a greater victory. When signing off at the end of the season with a goal in a topsy-turvy 4-4 draw at Southampton, it was not just Liverpool fans paying tribute. The Brazilian had finally cracked his critics, leaving his team and the league to universal praise.

Firmino entered English football as a curiosity, a striker who wasn’t really a striker at all. He leaves a trailblazer, a man who helped shift the parameters of what a Premier League forward actually means. In his wake he leaves dozens of press-heavy, multi-functional centre forwards. The “traditional number nine” went from a box Firmino wouldn’t fit into to a dying breed. Outliers exist in Erling Haaland and Harry Kane. But now, more than ever, forwards are broader and more skilled footballers. In the era of pressing and counter-pressing, they have far more to do than put the ball in the net. And very few of them do it better than Roberto Firmino did.

liverpool to win the 23/24 epl: 8/1*

*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change

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