Much was made about Roberto Firmino’s lack of goals at Anfield last season.
It took the Brazilian until the final home game of the season to finally notch in the league at home. Expertly nodding in Trent Alexander Arnold’s arching cross, the number 9 broke his hoodoo with aplomb.
Finishing the season with nine league goals and eight assists is a commendable feat for Firmino, who — despite wearing the number 9 jersey — for all intents and purposes is the number 10, the linkman and the conduit for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to be as prolific as they are.
But the Brazilian can be — and has been — sharper in front of goal, as he showed in the 2017/2018 season.
That campaign, Firmino — with the Reds playing a wonderful style of football, but lack the defensive nous that has marked the last two seasons — scored 15 league goals and supplied seven assists.
With his compatriot, Phillipe Coutinho, taking much of the playmaking responsibility and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain offering a powerful midfield thrust and dynamism, the Reds’ number 9 could vary his game and become a more conventional forward at times — not always operating as the supporting act — and it showed with his goals numbers more than doubling his assist figures.
With the departure of Coutinho, though, and the injuries suffered by Oxlade Chamberlain — and Naby Keita, another midfielder capable of providing creativity — Liverpool changed tact and moved their creative centre of gravity to their full-backs, Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson.
This move necessitated Firmino tailoring his game to play even deeper and to become the team’s nominal attacking midfielder, assuming the responsibility to link the play while also offering his trademark defensive graft and intelligence.
The results were self evidently good, with a Champions League and Premier League title to their names but this upcoming season the Reds have the personnel to be able to free the Brazilian international from the role of the selfless attacking glue player.
Perhaps the most notable feature of pre-season has been the form of Takumi Minamino, with the Japanese international showing a fleet-footedness and clever attacking movements and manipulation of space and — after looking daunted at times in his opening few months on Merseyside — looking comfortable in the Red shirt.
Similarly, Keita has appeared to — *touches wood, rubs rabbit foot and crosses fingers* — have put his injury woes behind him and arguably has been Liverpool’s form player since lockdown was lifted. The Guinean’s ability to dribble, his ambitious passing and, as has become clearer as time has progressed, tactical comprehension could see him — barring injuries — be a star performer this coming season.
With Minamino, Keita and the exciting Curtis Jones all capable of carrying the creativity can — not to mention Oxlade-Chamberlain and possibly the signing of Thiago — Firmino, as well as Salah and Mane, has a supporting cast to supplement his talents and allow him to play further up the field and get on the end of the ample chances that could be supplied his way.
Another factor potentially in the Brazilian’s favour is the possibility that Liverpool, as experimented with in pre-season, could line out in a 4222 formation at times this season. This alignment could be a mechanism to fit Salah, Mane, Firmino, Minamino and Keita into the team at the same time and — with players with such inventive tendencies — this tactical evolution could lead to the Reds, who scored 85 league goals last season, becoming even more potent in front of goal.
Firmino’s team first ethic and selflessness has seen him sacrifice himself for the betterment of the unit, but the elements are in place for the bright smiling number 9 to replicate his 2017/2018 season goal-scoring form and to finally end the tedious debate about whether he merits a place in the team.