Richard Jolly has unearthed some amazing facts about Roberto Firmino that prove his role is about so much more than just scoring goals.
Liverpool suffered a series of defeats before football was suspended around Europe. There was Atletico Madrid and Watford, Chelsea and Atletico. Last but certainly not least, there was Jurgen Klopp’s loss at Ludo to an Everton fan, Joe.
But in the middle of it, Klopp produced perhaps the best definition of Roberto Firmino. Liverpool’s Brazilian can be called a centre-forward, a false nine, a No. 10 and the leader of the press. At varying points, he is all, but none fully encapsulates his importance and contribution. Klopp called him “the connector.”
Firmino has become Liverpool’s ultimate link-up man, the player who connects midfield to attack, Mohamed Salah to Sadio Mane. There is no forward who is more integral to the game as a whole or more involved throughout. He cannot be judged solely by his goal tally, and certainly not at Anfield. Firmino is three goals behind Chris Wood in the scorers’ charts and still one adrift of Lewis Dunk and Jetro Willems in terms of league strikes at Liverpool’s home.
But other figures offer an indication of his impact, his irrepressible nature and his unique talents. He has had 1,380 touches in the Premier League this season. In itself, that is unexceptional: 81 others have had more. But only three of them are forwards. They are Wilfried Zaha, Willian and Dwight McNeil; the obvious common denominator is that all are wingers and there can be more space on the flanks.
Nor is it a one-off. No central attacker had more touches than Firmino last season (1,762) or in 2017-18 (1,754). No one else comes close: Jordan Ayew is his nearest direct rival this season, on 1,176, and he is sometimes used on the flanks, followed by Joelinton and, as Newcastle fans can testify, only one of his 1,150 touches has brought a goal. Firmino is a complete outlier for his position and Joelinton, Ayew and Salomon Rondon, who ranked in the top three for centre-forwards two years ago, belong in a very different bracket, of isolated front men for largely defensive teams. They are hold-up men, not link-up men.
By way of comparison among elite teams’ main strikers - Anthony Martial has had 862 touches, Harry Kane 710, Tammy Abraham 704 and Sergio Aguero 579. Firmino has begun more matches, but it is not enough to explain the difference. He is involved in more passages of play. He is more of a multi-functional footballer.
His average passes, of 32.7 per game, again may sound unremarkable, and 122 Premier League players boast more; but none are centre forwards, and nor is anyone until Sebastien Haller (169th on 26.9). Again, this is no one-off: last season Firmino was the leading striker, on 37.6 passes per game, with a huge drop-off to Raul Jimenez on second with 27.9. In 2017-18, there was a sizeable gap between Firmino (31.6) and second-placed Aguero (25.1).
If it shows Firmino is the opposite of the penalty-box predator, confining himself to fewer, more deadly touches – and Jamie Vardy, who is not involved in much of Leicester’s build-up, averages 12.1 passes and 21 touches per game – he has a capacity to be involved earlier and later in moves.
It is reflected by xGChain, the expected goals total of every move a player is involved in. Firmino’s is remarkably high this season: 24.97, second only to the runaway leader Kevin de Bruyne (28.99) and with only Raheem Sterling and Salah within 4.76 of him. The next striker is Jimenez on 19.60. So when Firmino is involved, goals follow, even when he isn’t scoring them himself.
Inevitably, that ubiquity is something he has sustained. Firmino’s xGChain last season was 24.35 (ninth, and the top striker). In 2017-18, it was 27.84, bettered only by Kane among those in his position and five others in total.
Where Firmino’s approach play stands out is the xGBuildup statistics, which measure the expected goals of a player’s contributions without shots and key passes; in short, his work as selfless support act, liable to be edited out of the highlights. This season, his number stands at 8.08; the nearest central attacker is Martial, on 4.97. Two years ago, it was 12.63, higher than any winger, with Kane the nearest centre-forward on a distant 7.96.
It illustrates his underlying impact. The most obvious measure of any forward’s merit is a more familiar figure: his goal tally. Firmino has eight in the Premier League, none at Anfield. It offers a ridiculous scenario of potentially the most dominant champions ever having a main striker who failed to score at home; indeed, in all competitions, Firmino’s strike against Atletico Madrid was his first Anfield goal for 337 days (and potentially his last for a while).
The numbers suggest he has been wasteful. Only two players have had more shots and only four have had more on target but 18 have more goals. His non-penalty xG of 15.49 is the highest in the Premier League. By underperforming that by 7.49, he stands out as statistically the most profligate player in the division.
Yet the way that Klopp always appears unconcerned by Firmino’s goal droughts – and there have been three this season – shows he has dual roles, as supplier and finisher, and even when he is below par inside the penalty box, he is an all-action anomaly outside it.
As Liverpool’s connector and constant, he is inimitable.