What has happened to Roberto Firmino?
An insight into the numbers of one of Liverpool's best players.
by Daniel Petersen
Picture via Getty Images
It’s been four glorious years since Liverpool assembled their now-fearsome frontline of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino in the summer of 2017. In the three and a bit seasons since, the trio have scored a combined 164 goals in the league alone (at time of writing), and fired the team to Champions League, Premier League and Club World Cup glory, all for a total of £111 million (per Transfermarkt), or less than what Barcelona paid for any one of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho.
Naturally, as with everything in football, this has led to debates over who is the best of the three, with most of the votes going to either of the goal-scoring wingers, and understandably so: they’re brilliant. Unfortunately, this has also led to Firmino being unfairly criticised and parodied as a “defensive striker” a tag he is repeatedly beaten with, despite the fact that nobody even vaguely related to Liverpool came up with it in the first place.
Recently, this criticism has intensified to the point of vitriol, particularly around his goal-scoring record: he did not score a goal at Anfield in the Premier League until the final day of the season, after the title was already won.
Without wishing to step on well-trodden ground by going through exactly what the Brazilian’s role in the team is - because even I will admit that it is quite difficult to explain without sounding mildly ridiculous – I will instead attempt to profile Firmino at his best when judged purely as a No.9, and work out where he is in relation to that now.
Picture by Giuseppe Cacace via Getty Images
First things first, Firmino is not, nor has he ever been, a particularly prolific goalscorer: with 38 league goals since the start of 2017/18, he is easily the lowest scoring of Liverpool’s main trio, a status that is unlikely to change with the arrival and red-hot form of Diogo Jota. In his final season at Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim, Firmino only scored 7 goals in 33 Bundesliga games. If we consider the fact that that Hoffenheim season was also his most prolific in terms of league assists, which is an illustration of the fact that he hadn’t yet become a No.9 in any sense.
His most prolific Liverpool season was the 2017/18 season, before Virgil van Dijk and Alisson reminded us what it was like to have a defence, when Firmino scored 15 goals in the league and 10 in the Champions League. This season, he’s got 5 goals in 19 appearances: if you extrapolate that over a 38 game season, that’s a grand total of 10 league goals. So a superficial examination suggests that, in goalscoring terms, he is solid but nowhere near spectacular.
However, a deeper dive shows that this isn’t the case. In that Hoffenheim season, Firmino took 2.9 shots per 90, which is pretty good for a striker and excellent on an attacking midfielder, and in 2017/18 took 2.69, which is good verging on pretty good for an out-and-out striker. This season, he is down at 2.11, albeit with a small sample size. That is a big drop-off, if not in absolute terms, then certainly in terms of the band of striker that Firmino could reasonably claim to be in; that 0.58 shots per 90 is the difference between a good striker and a mediocre one (for context, the previously extremely mediocre Ollie McBurnie is taking 2.75 per 90 for rock-bottom Sheffield United).
His key pass numbers are even worse: in 2017/18 he created 1.79, which is fine, and at Hoffenheim in 2014/15 he created 2.9, which is very good. This season, he is creating just 1 chance per game, which is genuinely bad, especially when you consider who he’s playing with and how many goals Liverpool score as a team.
This comes despite the fact that his xG (expected goals, or the probability of scoring based on shot location) totals are actually higher than in 2017/18, albeit in a somewhat smaller sample: in 2017/18, he produced 0.34 xG per 90, which again is fine, compared to this season, where he currently sits on 0.44 xG per 90, and that’s actually pretty good.
Picture by Phil Noble via Getty Images
What has disappeared instead is his ability to finish those chances: he underperformed his xG by a whopping 7 goals last season. This means that had he finished at an average rate, he would have had 16 goals, which would have been the most prolific league season of his career. This season he is down 2 goals on his xG. If you extrapolate his current xG of 7.44 per 90 over 38 games, he’d be expected to score around 15 goals. By contrast, in 2017/18 he overperformed by 5 goals, so he “deserved” to score 10, but this was a relative anomaly; over the course of his career since 2014/15, Firmino has underperformed his xG by 6 goals.
The point I’m trying to make, for those of you who have persevered this far, is that Firmino has never statistically profiled as anything other than an average shot-taking striker – one who last season had a truly horrific run of finishing – and to judge him as a pure striker is unfair. He isn’t good at it, and it’s not his job. This was always offset by the fact that he does other things that strikers don’t tend to do: dropping deep, making tackles and fouls, pressuring opponents, some of which isn’t captured purely by statistics. When Divock Origi is subbed on for Firmino, he doesn’t fulfill the same role, nor does Takumi Minamino or Jota.
This is a function of the system that Liverpool played, one which maximised Firmino’s talents while taking the goal-scoring and creative burdens away from him. As such, even when his goalscoring output wasn’t amazing, there was still a considerable drop in the team’s performances without him. In Liverpool’s two 90+ point seasons, one of the most notable features of the tactical setup was how little the midfield contributed to the attack, which had two effects: first, it meant that the full-backs had the freedom to roam and become the team’s primary means of getting the ball forward, and second, it placed the onus on Firmino to be the link between the midfield and forwards to an even greater extent than before. When you consider what this Liverpool side have achieved, even with a striker who doesn’t score that much, you have to ask whether or not it matters that Firmino is not particularly prolific.
Liverpool are not the team they have been over the past two seasons, as the 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa exposed quite painfully, and while players like Curtis Jones, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are starting to get more midfield minutes alongside Thiago Alcantara, Jota and Minamino, the defence is desperately undermanned. This is having effects further upfield, as the Reds can no longer afford to play with the same degree of risk as they did with Van Dijk and Joe Gomez in central defence, an issue exacerbated without Fabinho in defensive midfield. As a result, the whole team’s foundation has been compromised significantly. In this context, it’s not totally surprising that the attack should have fallen off so spectacularly, but even still, the difference between Liverpool being a good team and Liverpool being a great team is clearly not reliant on Firmino’s finishing.
Goalscorer or not, he’s just as important as he always was.