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Roberto Firmino: A more successful Liverpool player than Suarez, a better Brazil player than Neymar

22:31 IST 01/09/2019
Roberto Firmino Liverpool
The first Brazilian to reach 50 Premier League goals is still under-rated in some quarters but as the song goes he is the best No.9 in the world

“The Liverpool fans were singing a song today I’ve never heard before,” one Burnley fan said to another as they made their way back into town from Turf Moor. Burnley were beaten, 3-0, by the European champions. It was the most destructive visit paid to Burnley in the Premier League for nearly a year, since Everton scored with practically every shot they had here on Boxing Day.

A little further along the road, two groups of Liverpool fans encountered one another. “Si Senor, give the ball to Bobby he will score.” No hellos, no nods, just the arms-up elation that comes with a few beers and an away win like this. The song passes for a greeting these days and it was the one the Burnley fan had heard from the away end earlier in the day.

It’s not unpleasant, and it’s persistent. A little like the man himself.

Roberto Firmino is the first Brazil player to score 50 goals in the Premier League. It’s taken him four years, a fact which suggests that he’s not exactly prolific.

A year before they’d lost Luis Suarez and didn’t really know what to do without him. They had come so close to winning the title with Suarez in the team and subsequently lost their way. Brendan Rodgers might well have fared better if he’d put his hands up after that title run and said: “Don’t thank me, it was him.”

The Uruguayan left Liverpool a legend, listed among the greatest players ever to play for the club. But he didn’t win anything and, after joining from Ajax, always gave the impression that he was passing through to bigger and better things.

Much of what Jurgen Klopp has done in his four years at the club is to turn that perspective around. He has helped make Liverpool a destination club in itself, making world-class players out of some of those he inherited and some of those signed at his behest, in conjunction with sporting director Michael Edwards.

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are among those signed under Klopp for a purpose. It goes without saying that Virgil van Dijk and Alisson are in that category as well; perfect players for the system. Firmino is one of those who has grown along with Liverpool.

Liverpool became the second-best team in English football history and the European champions with Firmino as the centre-piece.

“With his work-rate, his technique, his goals and his all-round play, I don’t think there’s anyone like him,” team-mate Andy Robertson says. “People will say there are better strikers, but for me what he does is so important to our team. We’d be lost without him. He’s world class.”

Salah and Mane are the superstars in the front three. Firmino still flies a little under the radar. But he is a remarkable player. He is not a No.10 but he can play through balls. He is not a midfielder but can often be found with the ball at his feet and his head up in the centre circle. He is not an outright poacher but takes plenty of the chances that come his way; those 50 Premier League goals are evidence enough for that.

“He does everything, and that’s the beauty of Bobby,” says Robertson. “He can do it all. He’s our first line of defence, and I’ve not seen anybody better at doing that. He presses the defenders and doesn’t give them a minute. He comes back and nicks the ball in midfield for us.

“He’s so important defensively for us, then he goes up the park and scores goals and makes assists. That’s what we need him to do.”

Burnley decided on Saturday to go with a traditional 4-4-2. With a player like Firmino in the other team, it was asking for trouble. The problem with 4-4-2 is that it leaves no space for a holding midfielder to step back between the lines and make sure no opposition player is loitering. And that’s where Firmino wreaks havoc.

We have become used to a certain archetype of a No.9. You know the one; he’ll play passes only in the hope of getting one back closer to goal. He’s a poacher, all about runs in behind that will bring a chance. He is selfish, in a good way.

If that kind of No.9 plays for himself, Firmino is another thing altogether. He is the best all-round forward operating anywhere in world football. He is confident enough in his own ability to drift, allowing Salah to come in off the right for a wander. He forces the centre-backs to make a decision; go with or pass on. He finds his way into the gaps, like that earworm of a song finds its way into your brain.

He scored one and assisted another against Burnley; his second goal and second assist of the season. The one he set up for Mane found him capitalising on a Ben Mee mistake and finding a perfectly-weighted through ball for his strike partner. The one he scored saw him pick up the ball in midfield in yet another Burnley breakdown. It was his pass that set Salah on the path to goal.

Salah doesn’t deliberately assist much; it’s more a case that he cannot score one for himself as the ball escapes his dribble. That kind of selfishness means he will always be in the mix for goals but it tests the patience of his fellow forwards, Mane in particular. He was seen to be upset on the bench when substituted because a little earlier in the game Salah had neglected to pass when Mane had a good opportunity to score from the edge of the box.

It’s not a problem with Firmino; he simply finds the run or the feet of his partners. He knows what he should do, and he does it. In one second, he was attempting to play Salah in and the next he was on the edge of the box to sweep home a shot, clean as a whistle.

And that’s goal 50, in the same year he became a Champions League winner, in the same year he became a continental champion at the Copa America. These are things that don’t come easily.

Using the raw measurement of success, he is a better Liverpool forward than Suarez and a better Brazil forward than Neymar. That kind of player attracts a lot more attention while Firmino quietly gets on with his business.

“The best in the world is Bobby Firmino,” as the song goes. They’re not exaggerating.