An indifferent start to Roberto Firmino’s Liverpool career has led some to question the £30 million Brazilian recently. Eion Smith looks at whether Firmino can work through this to impress or will he end up with the same cautionary tale as an ex-Manchester United star…
There’s no denying the ability of Roberto Firmino. A full Brazilian international, the former Hoffenheim man is the type of player that can get a fan excited. He has all the hallmarks of an excellent modern 10 – the dazzling skills, the vision and ability to play any pass he wants, the intellect to weasel out of the smallest gap, the speed to drive away from markers and the technique to score any manner of goal. Liverpool were commended and praised for snapping him up in the summer reportedly ahead of a few Premier League rivals but the settling in process for Firmino has not been a smooth one. A change in manager, a team varying from brilliant to appalling and a more physical league to adapt to as well as an injury have seen some question the player in recent weeks.
Based on Liverpool’s and Firmino’s recent performances, there is a lot to suggest that people are right to question the Brazilian. Timid, scared, unwilling to work, no end product – the Watford defeat was a torrid time for Firmino as the panicky nature of Premier League fans takes hold. Hailed as a star in the making after the thumping given to Manchester City, Firmino is now representative of everything that is wrong with the current Liverpool side, irrelevant of who is patrolling the technical area. Moving to a new league in a new country is tough for any player but when the price tag is so high and the team is so shaky, it leaves Firmino very little room for failure. That harms confidence and a player like Firmino with little confidence is one that can infuriate fans and lead to accusations of the player going missing.
In full flow though, Firmino is a wonderful player. His performances in his final two seasons at Hoffenheim had a distinctive Brazilian flair and swagger to them to suggest that this was a young man destined for big things. Goals, assists, moments of brilliance to lift you from your seat; Firmino was the fulcrum of a good side that contained a few other exciting talents. He was given the Bundesliga’s Breakthrough of the Season award in 2014 quite deservedly but it was not all awards and plaudits in Germany. It took Firmino a good 18 months before he began to show his quality on a consistent basis for Hoffenheim. They knew they had a player during those first 18 months, he just needed time to adapt to the demands of the Bundesliga. Once he did, there was no looking back.
The big thing that helped Firmino really adapt? Game time. In his four full seasons in Germany, he never played fewer than 30 league games and his half season, he got 11 games under his belt. The constant playing time even when things never really went his way helped Firmino, the lessened pressure of Hoffenheim allowed him to develop and adapt at his pace. Sadly, that’s not something Liverpool fans have the patience for. They want results and they want them now. He has, after all, cost the club nearly £30 million and come with a big reputation. There is a fantastic player in there, as evidenced by his games against Chelsea and Manchester City, and Jurgen Klopp clearly likes Firmino but it might not take much more before he’s written off as a flop completely.
The struggles of Firmino bring to mind the Premier League career of ex-Manchester United man Shinji Kagawa. Like Firmino, Kagawa is a wonderful player to watch in full flight with similar traits to Liverpool’s Brazilian and, also like Firmino, Kagawa excelled in the Bundesliga. Yet, while Firmino did at Hoffenheim, Kagawa was one of the stars of a certain Jurgen Klopp’s all-conquering Borussia Dortmund side. Kagawa’s Premier League career however did not reach the same heights as he struggled to truly fit in at Manchester United. Kagawa had the luxury of playing in United’s last title-winning side but he always seemed to struggle with United’s style of play and the more physical nature of the Premier League. His second season under David Moyes was even more torrid and he was sold back to Dortmund by Louis van Gaal where he’s picked right back up where he left off.
Kagawa’s problems were tactical and physical in the Premier League but Firmino has been given a chance tactically. Jurgen Klopp’s arrival should, theoretically, give Firmino the best chance to flourish in the Premier League. Klopp’s high intensity football has seen similar players to Firmino like Kagawa and Mario Gotze flourish and it should be transferable. Of course, nothing in life or football is that simple but if there is going to be any coach right now to get the best out of the Brazilian it will be one of the finest motivators in the modern game. Klopp has certainly shown signs that he can get something out of Firmino at times but at times is not going to be enough for Liverpool fans with now heightened expectations and a demand for instant results.
So will Firmino end up like Kagawa and be deemed a failure in the Premier League? It’s difficult to definitively say but one thing is for certain – Firmino certainly has the better chance at succeeding. Whether he does or not will be down to the player but with a few more performances like the one against Watford, he might not get much of a chance to impress in the end. There is still plenty of time for Firmino though to change opinions. Just ask Mesut Ozil…