Roberto Firmino, Klopp’s Central Piece.

Roberto Firmino at Liverpool

By definition, a striker is supposed to “strike the ball into the net”. But that’s not what’s asked Firmino at Liverpool.

On the other hand, a forward can play a defensive style by pressing high and disturbing the opposition’s build-up play. Commonly called a pressing forward. Which is exactly what Roberto Firmino is. Additionally, when his team has the ball, the Brazilian acts as a false 9 by dropping to central areas and being a key piece of Liverpool’s attacking phases.

In fact, the only reason Roberto Firmino is expected to score is because of the number on his back. In reality, scoring and taking chances is the last thing Jurgen Klopp asks of him.

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Firmino Off the ball Movement

Roberto Firmino is a striker that often plays facing his own defense. Just like many other strikers, he will drop back to give an additional option to his midfielders and open up space for Mané and Salah which allows the fullbacks to play in higher positions.

Firmino: a central piece for Liverpool
Firmino: a central piece for Liverpool

His dropping back creates space for the wingers to cut inside to find themselves in dangerous positions. The space he creates results from dragging the central defenders higher-up the pitch. By doing so, Firmino also adds an extra option in midfield and creates triangles, thus helping the transition of the ball in the central areas.

Firmino Extra Option in midfield
Firmino Extra Option in midfield

Ultimately, Roberto Firmino’s movements open up new options 6 players. As a central defender, you either follow him to midfield to mark him and open space behind you, or let him overload the midfield and cause a numerical disadvantage for your team. A very difficult decision to make in a matter of seconds. His movement creates a domino effect that results in breaking the opposing defense without necessarily having a touch on the ball.

The video below illustrates Roberto Firmino’s positioning movement and effectiveness in terms of space creation. Leaving space behind for Salah and Mané while allowing the midfielders to drift wide as he drops between the lines to orchestrate the build-up play.

PS: Reduce the speed of the video before watching.

Moreover, Firmino drifts wide and creates the same triangles with his wingers and fullbacks or midfielders and creates space horizontally, which isn’t shown in the graphics and video.

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Poor Statistics you Say? Which ones are you Using?

Disclaimer: The metrics used In this part will be briefly explained. You can find a more in-depth explanation of the metrics used: here.

Firmino vs Vardy
Comparison: Firmino vs Vardy via understat.com

Metrics used:

  • xG90: Expected goals per 90 minutes.
  • xA90: Expected assists per 90 minutes.
  • G90: Goals per 90 minutes.
  • xGChain90: Adjusted team xG of all sequences of possession involving the player per 90 minutes.
  • xGBuildUp90: Adjusted team xG of all sequences of possession involving the player per 90 minutes except shots and key passes.
  • KP90: Key passes per 90 minutes.

We are comparing Roberto Firmino to Jamie Vardy who won the EPL goalscorer of the season. Whilst it is obvious that both players play two different types of roles, both are essential to their teams. The aim of this comparison is not to decide which playeris better overall but rather demonstrate that Roberto Firmino operates in a “strikerless” system.

As shown in the graph, Jamie Vardy scores more and is also expected to assist and score more than Firmino. However, what stands out is that Roberto Firmino appears to be more involved in his team’s goals. With almost twice as many key passes and a much higher xGBuildUp, it is clear that Firmino’s focus is shifted on playmaking and building up rather than finishing.

Another indicator is the high difference between Vardy’s xGBuildUp and his xGChain. This difference can only be interpreted in one way: Vardy will mainly contribute to Leicester’s goals by scoring them or assisting a teammate (or making a key pass). On the other hand, Firmino’s relatively high xGBuildUp is a result from his involvement lower on the pitch. In other words, Firmino is more likely to contribute to a goal without scoring it or assisting than a player like Jamie Vardy.

The close xG, proves that Firmino doesn’t lack the quality but is rather not presented with as many chances.

In conclusion, Roberto Firmino doesn’t score as much because he drops to build-up. Another proof of his high involvement in building play is the below heat map of his 2019/20.

Roberto Firmino's heatmap
Roberto Firmino’s heatmap
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Is Firmino doing a good job at not Scoring?

In order to determine Firmino’s effectiveness as a false 9, we will compare his statistics to arguably the best false 9 in activity: Karim Benzema.

While widely criticized for his lack of goals and absence in the box (just like Firmino), Benzema still manages to be ranked best goal scorer of the Champions League and holds the record of most assists at Real Madrid.

Roberto Firmino vs Karim Benzema

While Firmino comes close, it is obvious that Karim Benzma manages to balance his build-up and finishing contributions better.

It is worth mentioning that Benzema has been given more attacking freedom since the departure of Ronaldo. Firmino, on the other hand, plays alongside two wingers hungry for goals.

Roberto Firmino is NOT a traditional number 9. Judging him by his goal contribution is simply wrong as he does not spend his time in the box. In simpler words, Firmino would be the complete opposite of a player like Mauro Icardi (high stats, loads of goals, very low involvement).

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