During an in-depth discussion with a staffer from Liverpool’s analysis team earlier this year, an enquiry was put forward: who counts as the club's most critical player on the pitch?
The expected answer was Virgil van Dijk, or alternatively, Alisson. Instead, without hesitation, ‘Roberto Firmino’ was the response.
“He is the system.” The analyst reasoned that while Liverpool believed they have the world’s best centre-back and goalkeeper, the team struggles to thrive in their identity the most when the Brazil international is unavailable.
Mohamed Salah’s numbers are spectacular, Sadio Mane’s all-round game is incredible and the full-backs are fulcrums, but still... “No-one operates between the lines like him, no-one recovers the ball as well for our transitions, no-one understands and manipulates space as well and his first thought is always what can he do to benefit a team-mate or serve the system.”
Perhaps that is why Jurgen Klopp rarely sounds more exasperated than when he is quizzed over Firmino’s goal tally. On Saturday evening, following a 1-1 draw with Burnley, the manager was asked whether the forward would be psychologically affected by not scoring a league goal at Anfield yet this season. He has only managed one on Liverpool’s turf across all competitions in the campaign - during the 3-2 Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid in March.
“Bobby played today an outstanding game and we don't judge him,” Klopp said of the No 9, who created the most chances in the match. I hope he will not read your newspaper if you make a story of it because we just don’t think about it. It's not important who scores. We need Bobby for other things, we need Bobby in exactly the spaces where he was today, we need him as a link-up for all the other things.
“We only have chances in other positions because Bobby plays the way he plays. And he will score, there is absolutely no doubt about it. We are not worried at all about that because he played an outstanding game today and was involved in so many decisive situations.”
Klopp has been trying to underscore how “unbelievably valuable” Firmino is to Liverpool for years. During his first pre-season at the club, the German said: “People say he does not score enough. What?!
“He is the best player without scoring with how well he reads the game for the benefit of others. Outstanding! But then what if he starts thinking ‘oh, I need more goals’ and starts shooting from all over the place when usually, he would play a clever ball and make a run to open up the space?”
Two years ago, he reminded that the Brazilian “opens 5,000 gaps for everybody.”
Klopp describes Firmino as a "nine and a half" because his home is between the lines - residing exactly where defenders don't want him to.
His talent for dropping into his own half and mugging the man in possession to spark Liverpool attacks is unrivalled.
The way Firmino sees the game develop ahead of others and alters his movement to aid play is a marvel. He has vision, the capabilities to execute the simple and the sublime, most often making the right decision for the team at any time.
That would explain why when the backroom staff meet for drinks, there is a consistent talking point: 'Bobby Firmino... what a player!'
Apart from the important, often unquantifiable elements of the player's game, he has an impressive 130 goal contributions in 241 appearances for Liverpool, of which only two are from the penalty spot.
Roberto Firmino - Hound 🔴🇧🇷
A hugely underrated aspect of his game.
pic.twitter.com/NGpKDwSOXY— ً (@LFC_Comps)July 8, 2020
Firmino came close to erasing his home discomfort on Saturday, striking the post in the second half with a low diagonal after being slipped through by Salah.
Liverpool could have wrapped up the encounter in the opening 45, with the champions registering 23 shots in total at Anfield - the most in a league match they failed to win since December 2017. Nick Pope was inspired in Burnley’s goal, allowing his side the platform to steal a point from a set-piece as planned.
While Klopp admitted the draw felt like a defeat, Liverpool are still on course to secure the best points total in English top-flight history. And there will be no loss of sleep over Firmino’s haul at Anfield this season if he continues to be the thiever-in-chief and arch manipulator of space.