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Roberto Firmino

Understudy Firmino can still play leading role for Brazil

15:40 GMT 20/02/2018
Roberto Firmino Tite Brazil 06102016
The Liverpool man is in the form of his life and, despite remaining behind Gabriel Jesus in the pecking order, could have a big impact at Russia 2018

It came as no surprise last week when Brazil coach Tite revealed that Roberto Firmino had already guaranteed his place at this year’s World Cup.

The 26-year-old may not be first-choice for his country, but this season he’s taking centre stage like never before.

All things being equal, the Liverpool star will see his playing time in Russia limited, with Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus never having relinquished his hold on the no.9 jersey since his September 2016 debut.

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Firmino, however, is in form of his life and the Reds forward is proving himself more than a capable understudy.

His glittering form has spearheaded Jurgen Klopp’s rampant attacking forward line and has already seen him achieve his best-ever goal return for a single season. 

With more than three months still to go in the current campaign, Firmino has already hit 20 goals and bagged nine assists in 40 appearances this season – among his international colleagues, that leaves him second only to Neymar’s quite ludicrous haul of 27 goals and 16 assists in 27 games for PSG.

Gabriel Jesus, who has yet to kick a ball this year, has 10 goals in 26 games for Manchester City. Firmino’s total of 0.5 goals per game currently dwarfs Gabriel’s 0.38.

He stands way clear of his compatriot in terms of laying on goals for others and has created more than double the amount of chances for his team-mates.

"What a player! What can I say?” asked Liverpool coach Klopp. “If he loses the ball, he fights for it back. If he loses it again, he fights for it.”

And the player himself admits he is enjoying a purple patch like never before.

“I'm in magical form at Liverpool right now and my numbers speak for themselves,” he said. “My aim being to keep doing the best for my team and consequently keep myself on Tite's radar."

He’s certainly done that. Firmino’s ability to lead his side’s high press will also have impressed Tite, who has moved his entire team much higher up the pitch since his arrival and asks his Brazil side to win the ball back upfield much more regularly than they have done in previous years.

His tendency to drop from his centre-forward position to leave space for runners around him to exploit has also not gone unnoticed by Tite.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the current boss when he took charge two years ago was finding a system to get the best out of his talented forwards, who had become isolated from the rest of the team under the previous coach and faced heavy criticism of their ‘Neymardependencia’.

Key to ending their reliance on Neymar was opening up the space between the lines, however, and Gabriel Jesus’ pace and propensity to run in behind has seen opposition defences retreat drastically. Attacking full-backs and a more expansive central midfield have helped exploit that, leaving the Selecao frequently playing the majority of their matches in the opposition’s half of the field.

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That, however, has led to Brazil constantly facing a ‘low block’, and fighting to break down deep-lying teams.

"We need to work on the offensive side of our game to perfect some of our attacking moves,” Tite told Globo earlier this month. “We need to create more space if we want to open up a defensive line of five.”

Firmino may well be key to their success in that regard. His movement and interplay could help unlock stubborn defences who refuse to allow Brazil the space to hit them hard and fast on the break.

The Liverpool star looks likely to have to settle for a place in the supporting cast for Brazil in June no matter how many goals he scores in the interim, but he could yet have a starring role.