The three-part trilogy and statistical analysis of Roberto Firmino’s recent tenure at Liverpool F.C.
‘Si Senor, the best in the world is Bobby Firmino’: This is the song that embodied the love of Roberto ‘Bobby’ Firmino by the Anfield stadium faithful. ‘Our number nine give him the ball and he’ll score every time’; the antithesis of his goals per game ratio in the premier league the last three seasons (goals per game ratio of 3:11).
Certain sections of social media have been very quick to vilify Bobby, a situation comparable to when a predator identifies the prey and seeks to capture. Rival fans often scorn at Bobby’s record of 84 goals in 281 matches. They look to compare players such as Raul Jimenez and Alexander Lacazette in a slanderous attempt to publicise the attributes of their so-called star players. Certain fans perceive Bobby as a false 9, a defensive forward or a centre forward. ‘But there’s something that the Kop wants you to know.’
Bobby plays in the ‘Bobby’ position: a unique role for the number 9 which has been tweaked and adapted in the last 3 years since the departure of Philippe Coutinho to F.C. Barcelona. Not playing as the traditional striker, he is quickly forgiven for his lack of goals. This role is defined for a tactically intelligent player, the leader of the press who consistently drops into pockets of spaces to drag the centre backs out of position. This creates space in key areas for the other attackers to exploit; Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane creating chances leading to a combined 44 goals in 2018/19 season and 37 goals in 2019/20 season.
Firmino has therefore gained praise by his managers, teammates, and pundits for his positional sense, mobility, intelligent movement, and ability to make attacking runs off the ball. Although he suffered a 329-day goal drought at Anfield, his consistent work of the ball was constantly appreciated by the Liverpool crowd.
His decision making off the ball has been imperative for Liverpool winning four trophies in two years: dropping off allowing the team to regroup and fall back into a compact, defensive 4-3-3 structure or counter press with the rest of the front three, midfielders and a wingback. When Firmino maintains his position, the deeper organisation prevents long balls bypassing the midfield and past the backline as well as covering the dangerous pockets of space and preventing the opposition from taking advantage. When he starts the press, his shadow blocks the eyeline of the player in possession, forcing the player to blindly pass and leading to ball turnover due to traps set.
Bobby is the instigator of the press, attempting to force mistakes from the opposition 694 times in 19/20 and gaining possession 216 times (31% success rate at forcing ball turnovers). Jurgen Klopp, current Liverpool manager, has referred to Firmino as the "engine" that propels the team's relentless counter-attacking system; "If he loses the ball, he fights for it back. If he loses it again, he fights for it. He looks like the engine of the team."
Klopp brought back that fear factor and Liverpool in the last two seasons were known as the side most effective in the press, lethal in the transitions and continuously threatening on the counter attacks. Firmino was key linking the midfield with the two wingers which led to swift movement of the ball for the counter. This was integral for playing the key passes to Mane and Salah, highlighted by the number of passes that directly led to assists:42 passes in 18/19 season and 49 passes in 19/20 season.
He is by trait an attacking midfielder or a second striker most suited to the 10 position, utilising his speed, close control and vision to full effect and maximising the output of the team. Former Liverpool player Ryan Babel who was a teammate of Firmino at Hoffeinheim described Bobby as ‘A tricky player’ with a humble mentality, supported by Hemerson Maria, a Brazilian manager who previously coached him at Figueirense FC Under 20s level.
Babel then went on to say, ‘He can dribble, shoot, he has a great shot, he can play a lot of through balls and his assists are very good". The praise was justified by the performances on the pitch: 13 through balls in the 18/19 season (7th best in the premier league) and 19 goal creating actions in the 19/20 season (ranked 8th best in the premier league).
Regularly dropping into the midfield or in the 10-position allowed him to collect the ball from deep, spray direct passes towards Salah or Mane or progressively dribble towards the final third. This is highlighted by 384 medium and long-range passes in 2019/20 as well as 413 medium and long-range passes in 2018/19. Firmino frequently advanced towards the final third in the 18/19 and 19/20 season; 55 carries into the final third in 18/19 season and 51 in 19/20.
This has been essential in setting the attacking mindset and instigating the process; inside forwards (Salah and Mane) isolating defenders, leaving them standing and entering the 18-yard box for a goal-scoring opportunity. Playing both the 10 role and the 9-role required enormous will-power, mental strength, and strong stamina levels: a testament to the brilliance of Bobby. Maintaining elite performances became merely an expectation prior to the first Lockdown. So, what has changed?
This season, he has faced criticism from the fans and the media. On the surface this may seem harsh; given that he scored 12 goals, six assists from 34 appearances in 18/19, nine goals, eight assists from 38 appearances in 19/20 and currently 6 goals, 5 assists from 27 appearances in 2020/21 season. Are Liverpool fans justified with their frustrations of his final product?
So far this season, Bobby has been renowned for wayward shooting, highlighted by a total of 64 shots and 23 (35.9%) on target in the 20/21 season. Compare this with a total of 100 shots and 37 shots on target in 19/20 and 73 shots with 31 (42.5%) shots on target in the 18/19 season highlights nearly a 7% drop in accuracy of shots which have hindered Liverpool upfront.
The lack of accuracy and wasteful finishing has been a microcosm of Liverpool’s impotency in front of goal, especially at Anfield in 2021 where they have failed the score a single goal from open play. A far cry from the side that flew forward like ‘Red Arrows’ and scored goals for fun. His decline in number of shots, percentage on target and goals scored has been epitomized by Liverpool only scoring 48 goals from 29 matches, compared to 85 goals in 38 games last season. As a result, only 46 points have been acquired after 29 games, compared to 82 points at the same stage last season pre lockdown.
The lack of crowds has heavily influenced Bobby- the silence of the stands, the absence of the Kop-like roar providing a training ground atmosphere. The only visible sounds are the cacophony of commentaries. Additionally, the injuries in defence have caused both fullbacks to focus more on the defensive side of the game, rather than forming a fluid 2-3-5 formation and acting like advanced playmakers and wingers.
This has led to a lack of service and hence Bobby has had lower number of attempts on goal as well as less clear-cut chances, underlined by expected goals (xG) decreasing from 13.3 goals in 18/19 and 13.5 goals in 19/20 to 10.6 goals in 20/21 season. The lack of clear-cut chances in recent times for Liverpool has been demonstrated by Firmino’s expected number of assists (xA) decreasing from 5.6 and 6.3 goals in 18/19 and 19/20 to 3.8 expected assists with xA per 90min decreasing from 0.19 to 0.16.
Nevertheless, fans were willing to forgive Bobby for failing to score in nearly a year at Anfield between 2019 and 2020 so has he failed to provide in other aspects of the game, or are fans being irrational in their evaluations of Bobby’s season so far?
The 20/21 season has seen a remarkable drop off in pressure applied by Bobby: only 378 press attempts with 109 of them successful in 27 matches (28% success rate). The areas of pressure are the biggest indicator in the drop of in Firmino’s energy levels and high levels of fatigue. In the past, there were always positive, pressing passages of play, associated with the Klopp’s gegenpressing, regardless of whether there was an attacking or a more pragmatic approach.
However, this season, with pressing in ones and twos rather than as a pack of wolves, there has been 166 pressing attempts in the middle third of the pitch and 158 in the final third. Compare this with 330 pressing attempts in final third and 306 pressing attempts in middle third in 19/20, 344 in middle third, 314 in final third in 18/19 and 343 in middle third and 319 in final third highlights the drop off in pressing.
Not only has Bobby dropped off in his pressing but he has lost the ball more often under pressure. In football (not that I am an expert), clarity of thought is needed. The best players are those who are cool, calm, and collected in possession and consistently make the correct decisions. Enervation and exhaustion cause convolution in logic of thoughts, decision making as well as a heightened sense of panic; represented by just 203 passes made when under pressure in 20/21 compared to 283 from 34 games in 18/19 season and 306 passes from 38 games in 19/20.
Firmino pre-Christmas had his role adapted. Instead of dropping deep and creating space in behind, he regularly took up positions in the underlap area on the edge of the box, widening the gap between the centre backs who vacated space marking him. This allowed the other forwards to take up positions in the space created which led to great goal-scoring opportunities. Evidence of this was portrayed in the home matches against Tottenham Hotspur F.C and Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C.
The tackling statistics confirm the assumption: 15 tackles in the attacking third from 27 matches, compared to 13 from 38 games last season. In addition, movement into the underlap areas has led to Bobby producing 23 crosses in 27 matches. Previously he made 24 crosses in 18/19 and 16 crosses in 19/20. The number of crosses for the whole team increased, exhibiting a clear lack of ideas which has been evident post-Christmas in the league.
Liverpool did not score a single league goal from December 26th to January 28th and have failed to score a single goal at Anfield from open play in 2021. As a result, Firmino’s role changed to a deeper role and at times, the formation changed to a 3-5-2. But fatigue has led to lead to lower pressure levels. This can be demonstrated by the number of tackles made in the middle and defensive third: dropping deeper into midfield positions for the past two seasons has led to 17 tackles in the middle third and seven tackles in the defensive third in 19/20 compared to 10 tackles in the middle third and three tackles in the defensive third in 20/21.
He has scored only one goal and got two assists in 13 games, a demoralizing stat which has deeply impacted his confidence. When morale is low, confidence is drained, expressing your ability becomes a mental block. He has been taking less chances recently, exhibited by the risks taken in passes attempted: 295 attempted passes between 15 and 30 yards and 60 attempted passes over 30 yards with a 79.7% and 70% pass accuracy respectively in 20/21. Compare this to 386 attempted passes between 15 and 30 yards and 81 attempted passes with 82.9% and 79% pass accuracy, respectively, displays the lower number of passes and passing accuracy. This can be attributed to overthinking and trying too hard to affect play and aid with the transition from defence to attack.
There have been 530 short passes this season compared to 603 the previous season with 85.1% pass accuracy so Firmino has often looked for the safer option to complete the pass and prevent ball turnover. In his defence, with lack of counter press and an extremely high backline which can be easily exploited by one long ball, keeping possession is of greater importance to Jurgen Klopp and signing of Thiago is the blueprint for the change in system.
On the other hand, to be effective whilst keeping possession, the attacking side must pass and probe until an opening appears. Swift movement of the ball is required and impulsive bursts into space are vital in freeing oneself from being marked. Too many times this season, Firmino has passed short and remained static or he takes extra time on the ball and slows down the attack, enabling the opposition to regroup into their defence positions.
Moreover, the driving runs into the final third has dramatically decreased to only 28 carries towards the final third in 20/21 which shows the lack of belief when attempting to take on players. The lack of confidence is emphasised by the dramatic reduction in attempted dribbles; 97 attempts in 19/20, 78 dribbles in 18/19 and 75 in 17/18 compared to 47 dribbles in 20/21.
Therefore, the distance travelled with the ball to be shorter than in previous seasons: after 27 matches Bobby has travelled 1855 yards towards the final third in 27 games. This yields an expected progressive distance of 2610 yards for the whole season, which is 430 yards shorter than the progressive distance travelled in the 19/20 season. Thus, the driving power, forcing the opposition into a defensive shell and onto the backfoot has been clearly missing from Firmino and the Liverpool side. For that reason, opposition sides have gained greater confidence and play a more positive approach to secure victories. The lack of certainty in our decisions have also severely affected Liverpool in the transitions so opposition players push further forward to support the attacking phases and ultimately create chances.
Firmino harassing and haranguing opposition players has started to become a distant memory. The vicious cycle of low confidence and fatigue has severely affected his contribution in the premier league; goal creating action per 90 minutes was 0.52 in 18/19, 0.57 in 19/20 but drastically dropped to 0.29 in 20/21 season. In addition, he has only played six live ball passes that lead to a goal compared to 14 in 19/20 and 11 in 18/19 as well as making only 29 passes that have directly led to shots (compared to 49 and 42 in previous seasons).
The most unflattering statistic about the current lack of impact has been the net goals and net xG for Liverpool whilst he has been on the pitch compared to off. Net goals whilst he was on the pitch in 18/19 and 19/20 was 49 goals but this season, it has been eight goals. The net expected goals were 35.9 (1.24 net xG per 90 minutes) and 30.5 (0.92 net xG per 90 minutes in 18/19 and 19/20 respectively but only 13.6 this season.
But correlation does not necessarily imply causation and these statistics can be partly explained by Mane and Salah misfiring during specific periods of the season. Nonetheless, Bobby’s influence has diminished in recent times, displayed by net goals on/ off the pitch in 90 minutes being -0.44 compared to 0.85 in 19/20 season as well as net xG decreasing from 0.39, 0.71 in 18/19, 19/20 season to 0.07 in 20/21 season.
Overall, these factors have led to Firmino being less of a threat for the opposition and having little impact upon matches. The signing of Diogo Jota from Wolverhampton Wanders F.C has added competition to the front three and Firmino’s starting spot is certainly up for debate. Recently the front three of Salah, Mane and Jota have linked up with greater cohesion and have attacked with greater threat in the recent matches against Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C and RB Leipzig away from Anfield. This means Bobby will have improve to displace one of the three currently starting players. Can Bobby turn his form around and what does the future at Liverpool F.C hold for him?
There have been strong questions surrounding Bobby’s possible decline in ability. There is understandable reason based on Firmino being 29 years old and the mass hysteria from fans and media alike that players in their 30s experience a rapid decline in fitness levels and movement. But the development of sport science, footballing diets and managing playing time has lengthened player careers considerably thus may be judged as reactionary to consider a poor extended period of form as a reason for a mass decline. His ball retention rate has been consistently around the 60% to 70%, thus he certainly has not lost his ball control ability.
Has Bobby’s decline been solely down to him?
In addition, whilst there has been a decline in chances creates, goals and assists, his shot creating action per 90 minutes has increased from 2.92 in 19/20 to 3.19 in 20/21. This certainly has not been helped by the poor form of Sadio Mane who has consistently failed to take clear chances.
Due to buying Virgil Van Dijk and Allison, Jurgen Klopp has placed greater trust in his defenders and the hectic schedule of the premier league means the consistent gegenpressing which Klopp instilled at FSV Mainz 05 and Borussia Dortmund is not sustainable without lengthy periods of rest. Zeljko Buvac, Klopp’s assistant manager from 2001 at Mainz to 2018 at Liverpool was widely regarded as the ‘brain’ who insisted on the high intensity for 90 minutes.
However, Klopp has tempered that approach in the following years with Pep Ljinders as assistant manager; a pragmatic approach which has resulted in greater shot conversion. The shot creating action therefore decreased from 3.94 per 90 minutes (121 shots) in 17/18 to 3.49 (101 shots) in 18/19 to the current shot creating levels.
The change in approach also coincided with the departure of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million which caused a change in formation. In 17/18, the front four of Salah, Mane, Coutinho, Firmino were lethal and constantly created chances but the Liverpool side were defensively exposed in the first half of the season. But in the second half of the second, the front four became a front three and the side became a lot more balanced both defensively and offensively.
Firmino has deserved the plaudits for his unbelievable work off the ball, and his performances contributing to the Premier league title and the Continental Treble. We must support Bobby during the poor periods of form and believe that form is temporary, but class is permanent. He remains a prominent player for Liverpool F.C.
For Firmino to perform at the optimum levels in future seasons, he may need to adapt his position and perform in one role only. Klopp must decide. Firmino is by trait an attacking midfielder so if a striker is bought in the summer window, Klopp can play a 4-2-3-1 formation with Firmino in the 10 position, like he used at Dortmund.
I believe the best solution is to play Firmino in the number nine role. For the Brazil national football team, Firmino regularly plays more like a traditional striker, constantly making runs into goalscoring positions and regularly poaching goals. His goalscoring instincts were displayed in the 5-0 win over Bolivia national team in October 2020, scoring two goals: the first goal being a tap in from a left-hand side cross and the second goal involved making a darting run and converting a low pinpoint delivery. He has been more clinical for the national team in recent times, scoring three goals from three matches in 2020 and 5 goals from 15 matches in 2019.
Furthermore, Firmino pre-Christmas played more of a pressing forward role demonstrated by greater tackles in the final third, greater pressing in the attacking third. He has also been praised for his heading ability and has increased his strength capacity. Consequently, despite his relatively slender stature, he can play the role of target man, controlling direct passes into him and either dribbling towards goal or linking up play with other players through his strong range of passing.
However, if Bobby does not fit into Klopp’s plans, then we may need to sell to generate revenue, remove 180k from the wage bill and reminisce about his work rate, his late goals, his love for the club and his brilliant performances.
No matter what happens in the future, he will go down in Liverpool folklore as a great player and a fan’s favourite. But the journey isn’t over. It’s time for him to reset and restart after nearly a month’s break. It’s time for fans to continuously support him. Bobby will overcome this period because I believe in him and hopefully when fans are back, Bobby will produce performances to silence the critics and provide moments of jubilation, delirium, and celebration- induced catharsis to those who watch. Bobby time will come.