25 June 2015

On Roberto Firmino

Here's your marquee signing. 23-year-old attacking midfielder-slash-forward-slash-just-get-him-in-the-final-third Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim. Firmino is Liverpool's third Brazilian, joining fellow international Coutinho – who, yes, plays in a similar position – and Lucas. South American Game Night just got a lot more interesting.

£29m – well, £22m rising to £29m based on what's likely appearance- and performance-related clauses – is Liverpool's second-highest transfer fee (and let's not mention the first). It's the highest fee paid for a player from the Bundesliga. It's a lot of money.

It's also little more than half of what Liverpool would get for Raheem Sterling if they sell this summer. It's less than the fee Aston Villa seem to be sticking to for Benteke. It's less than what Liverpool paid for, say, Lovren and Borini combined: a player wholly out-of-favor and everyone's favorite scapegoat. Or Aspas, Luis Alberto, and Balotelli. Pick your combination of scapegoats, out-of-favor, and/or soon-to-be-sold players. Liverpool have all but set £29m on fire just to watch it burn many times before. Although that's not necessarily a reassuring sentiment.

Liverpool made £92.7m just from Premier League TV rights last season: £54.1m in equal distribution, £18.5m in merit money, and £19.98m in facilities fee. That's a lot of money. It's no coincidence that transfer fees have gone up every year.

As Paul Tomkins notes, Firmino's not even close to Liverpool's record signing after factoring in inflation.

But I doubt you're here for my half-hearted financial justification. That's not what I really care about, that's not what you really care about. What sort of player are Liverpool getting?

Well, for one thing, he's a player whose position we're not quite sure of. He's very much a #10 in a 4-2-3-1 at Hoffenheim, but also spent some time on both flanks and up front. He began his career as a defensive midfielder in Brazil, even if that was six years and three clubs ago. He's been used as a central striker, albeit kind of false-niney, for Brazil at Copa America, with Neymar/Robinho and Willian running into space beyond. He could play any or all of those roles – okay, hopefully not defensive midfielder, although Liverpool might still be in the marker for one – at Liverpool.


This will obviously continue to change as players are sold and one or two others bought – especially a striker, an honest-to-God striker – but you can see the side taking shape.

I have no idea where Firmino will play at Liverpool. It could be as the #10 in a 4-2-3-1, with Coutinho and another (whether Sterling, Lallana, Markovic, or Ibe) out wide. It could be as a false-niney striker. It could be as a support striker in the 4-Diamond-2. Maybe Firmino lines up wide, in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, using his on-ball drubbing ability and direct running to get into positions to either score or assist. Is he really just a replacement for Sterling? Actually, maybe, although I'd obviously rather see the two play together.

I really have no idea. I doubt you do either. Options. If nothing else, Brendan Rodgers loves options.

Okay, you're getting Coutinho's old shock collar.

Firmino's decent – but not great – in the box, both in the Danger Zone and out wide. He's a surprisingly competent in the air, scoring two of his seven goals with headers (one from a set play), with four right-footed goals and one left-footed. All of his league goals last season came from central positions, which isn't incredibly surprising.

But that's some horrific, horrific outside the box shooting, and it's not for a lack of trying. Five shots on-target from outside the area all season. 12.5% shooting accuracy. Good lord.

And that's not a good enough return for someone playing up front, even if it's still a better return than any of Liverpool's strikers last season. Maybe it's different in a better side, maybe it's different when playing up front on a more consistent basis, but color me skeptical.

So what about his playmaking ability?

That's a bit more like it. 68 chances created last season – only Sterling created more for Liverpool – with 10 assists. He doesn't cross much. He only created five chances from throughballs (none leading to an assist), but that was more a function (and failing) of Hoffenheim rather than the player, having played 12 throughballs as key passes (with five assists) the season before.

Key passes from deep, key passes from the byline, penetrating passes from the edge of the final third, laid-off passes around the edge of the box. He drifts a bit more to the right than left, but that's a good thing considering Coutinho prefers the exact opposite.

Well that's neat. Firmino leads in scoring contribution (buoyed by his assists), dribbles, and defensive statistics. Coutinho takes more shots, plays more passes and throughballs, and is better in possession. Sterling has the highest amount of key passes and a better shot accuracy (weak left-footed shots straight at the keeper still count as on-target shots). Lallana scores at a better rate, partly a function of playing less time than the other three, partly a function of taking fewer shots from outside the box. Everybody's better at something, some better at more things.

So Firmino put up good, but not great, baseline stats in a very mediocre team. Those stats suggest a very well-rounded attacking footballer, as we've been told by more devoted Bundesliga watchers. But last season was nowhere near his most impressive season.

Whoa. And now Bobby Firm leads in 12 of 18 categories.

What changed? Well, the short answer is "Hoffenheim." The 2013-14 Hoffenheim were free-scoring – only Bayern and Dortmund tallied more goals – but also conceded just as often – only the bottom three sides let in more goals. So 2014-15 Hoffenheim were determined to be more defensively sound, more defensive minded, in the hopes of improving on their ninth-place finish.

And it worked, kind of. Hoffenheim conceded 15 fewer goals. Hoffenheim moved up one place in the table, despite accruing the same amount of points as the season before. But Hoffenheim also scored 23 fewer goals than in 2013-14, Firmino nine fewer than in 2013-14. So it's no coincidence that the only category 2014-15 Firmino leads in the above comparison is tackles and interceptions. Although, Hoffenheim press more than Liverpool do, even last year's deeper, less adventurous Hoffenheim; let's be honest, despite the billing, Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool don't press in attack all that often. Although adding Firmino should help do so if Rodgers so desires.

A team that loses attacking flair and hopes to add a bit more defensive solidity? And it doesn't really improve the side; sure, they concede fewer, but not fewer enough to make up for the enormous loss of goals? This may sound familiar to some of you.

Firmino wasn't poor last season by any stretch, still better than Liverpool's comparable players in a number of categories despite playing in an inferior side. But he can be much, much better. You would hope, assume that he'll be better playing with Liverpool's better players.

He's versatile. He's durable, playing in 33 of 34 league matches in each of the last three campaigns. He was able to adapt to a very different league and country at a young age, hopefully demonstrating that another adaptation shouldn't be too difficult. With seven goals and 10 assists last season, and 16 goals and 11 assists in 2013-14, he had a hand in 35% and 32% of Hoffenheim's league goals in the last two campaigns. He just made a massive step up in becoming an important national team player, one of Brazil's bright spots at Copa America. And he's still only 23, to be 24 in October.

Yes, Liverpool paid a lot of money. Yes, I don't know what position he'll play. If it's attacking midfield, well, Liverpool already have a lot of those. If it's striker, I'll worry even more about his acclimatization to both position and league.

But Roberto Firmino still seems a very good signing, both future potential and realized potential. As Didi Hamann said, he's exactly the type of signing you worried Liverpool would be able to attract without Champions League football, and they made absolutely no hesitation in getting it done.

It's June 25. Liverpool have already signed five new players: Firmino, Milner, Ings, Bogdan, and Joe Gomez, all before July 1. And that's not counting Origi – like a new signing! – and that's not counting Nathaniel Clyne, rumored to become official next week, and that's not counting Bacca or Rondon or Benteke or whichever striker Liverpool decide on if Liverpool decide on one. It's a lot easier to get business done in a non-World Cup/Euro summer, but at this point last year, Liverpool had signed Rickie Lambert and were close on Lallana and that's it.

Liverpool seem to have a definitive plan this summer – even if that plan also includes neutering Rodgers, firing first-team coaches, etc. – and have struck early. It's a decisiveness that we haven't seen under Rodgers, in FSG's last few transfers, and it seems to be recognition of last summer and last season's failings. No screwing around, no endless monitoring and leaking to the press only to see other clubs jump in with both feet, no waiting until others are sold before spending.

And I'm a lot more interested in the plan for 2015-16 than I was after Liverpool's horrific finish to the season a month ago.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the write up Nate. Great stuff!

With lots of versatile CM's, and now lots of attacking mids (and lets face it Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana are probably more suited centrally) we could also be looking at a 4321 as well.