When it comes to talking about Liverpool‘s feared front three, Roberto Firmino can often feel like the odd one out.
While the trio all possess similar qualities, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are perhaps most obviously cut from the same cloth. Operating from either flank, they are direct, quick and provide the Reds’ main source of goals, sharing the Premier League Golden Boot with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in 2018-19.
If defending against Mane and Salah is akin to trying to shield yourself from machine gun fire, Firmino is much more subtle, sneakily planting bombs while his team-mates try to overwhelm the opposition, waiting for the right moment to hit detonate and complete the obliteration.
As a result, there’s a tendency to downplay Firmino’s ability as a centre-forward. Often he’s referred to as a ‘false nine’, which can feel like something of a backhanded compliment.
It’s true that the Brazil international is happy to drop deep and link the play between the midfield and his fellow forwards, and it’s true that he has a selfless streak which means he is more than happy to provide an assist when he could score himself.
But his role as the engine in Liverpool’s attack does not mean Jurgen Klopp has opted for some kind of David Batty presence as his central striker. It’s because, in Firmino, he has a complete footballer at his disposal.
The effect of his absence was there for all to see in the first half of Liverpool’s UEFA Super Cup victory over Chelsea. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain handed the chance to impress in attack in his place – albeit with Mane operating more centrally and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left – the Reds stuttered and failed to find any fluency.
Trailing 1-0 at half-time, with Christian Pulisic also having a goal ruled out for offside, Klopp replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain with Firmino, and it took all of three minutes before Liverpool were level.
Firmino could no doubt have scored himself after latching on to Fabinho’s nudge over Chelsea’s defence – probably without even looking at the goal – but instead he opted to lay the ball off to Mane because the Senegal man had an even easier chance to finish.
Such efficiency is almost counter-productive for Firmino. Mane and in particular Salah are much more trigger happy – Salah attempted 137 shots in the Premier League last season, Firmino a measly 75 – which adds to the impression they possess the selfish ruthlessness required in great goalscorers, a trait Firmino as a ‘false nine’ lacks.
But a closer look at Firmino’s stats shows he is an equally clinical finisher. The 27-year-old scored 16 goals in all competitions last season, outperforming his xG of 13.42, as noted by the Liverpool Echo.
Watch back a compilation of those strikes and you will find all 16 came from inside the opposition’s penalty area; seven came from inside the six-yard box. While seven were scored on his favoured right foot, he also bagged four with his left and five came from headers.
Firmino may have the work rate of N’Golo Kante and the playmaking abilities of some of the best creative talents, but he can also sniff out chances like a traditional fox in the box.
No game perhaps summed that up as well as Liverpool’s 5-1 mauling of Arsenal at Anfield last season, in which Firmino took home the match ball after helping himself to a hat-trick.
His first came courtesy of a lucky bounce, but it is telling that when a ball breaks loose, Firmino is so often the man on hand to ensure it is put in the back of the net – the cheeky no-look finish is always a nice bonus.
While he completed his hat-trick with a confidently-taken penalty, sending Bernd Leno the wrong way, his second was the pièce de résistance, leaving three Arsenal defenders sprawled on the floor as he collected the ball from deep and slalomed his way through on goal to find the bottom corner with his left foot.
Mane and Salah are still likely to end the season as Liverpool’s top goalscorers, leaving Firmino left cast as the facilitator to their heroics.
But as the Super Cup showed, Klopp’s side would be lost without their man in the middle of everything.
It’s about time the world wakes up: Roberto Firmino isn’t a false nine, he’s the perfect nine.
By Rob Conlon