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Finding space, with Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino

Roberto Firmino joined Liverpool in July 2015 and no player has had greater impact on the club’s style of play since. Firmino, re-christened ‘Bobby’ by the Kop, joined the Reds from German club Hoffenheim where he spent four and a half years. He scored 38 goals in 140 appearances at Hoffenheim, capturing the Bundesliga’s breakthrough player award for his efforts.

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Firmino had a quiet start to his Liverpool career, struggling to create a meaningful partnership with Christian Benteke in the 2015/16 lineup. It was the arrival of Jurgen Klopp, and his use of Firmino as a ‘false 9’, which finally saw the Brazilian player fulfil his potential. The player was a revelation in Klopp’s counter-pressing formation and he finished the season as the club’s top scorer in the Premier League, with 10 goals.

It was last season however when Firmino scaled dizzying heights providing much of the energy and creativity that propelled Liverpool’s front three of Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah to a record goals return in a Champions League campaign that saw Liverpool reach the final in Kiev.

Liverpool’s rapid paced counter attacking play was intoxicating to watch and remains the most compelling narrative from the 2017/18 season, with Firmino central to all that was good in Klopp’s team’s play.

Fast forward to this season and surprisingly the world looks a different place for the Brazilian.

Klopp has evolved his formation and gameplay with his signature counter-pressing style replaced through a much strengthened back line and a less energy sapping style designed to optimise the club’s points return over a full season. Subsequently, Firmino’s role has become more withdrawn and the 27 year old has found himself playing behind Salah in a 4-2-3-1 formation in recent games.

While there is no question that this formation is working; with Liverpool unbeaten and 2 points behind leaders Manchester City after 12 games, the slower pace of Liverpool’s play on top of the congested space that Firmino now occupies has reduced the player’s visible contribution, despite his return of 2 goals and 2 assists in 12 appearances.

So whereto now for the Kop favourite?

Well whatever the statistics might say, the player almost certainly one of the first that Klopp commits to his teamsheet on matchday, while he also retains the full support of Reds fans.

As a squad, Liverpool are still some well short of full fitness, with Henderson, Keita and Milner all spending time on the treatment table recently in addition to long term injury Oxlade-Chamberlain and the recently returned Lallana.

It is probable that Klopp will return to his favoured 4-3-3 when he has a fully fit squad available at which time Firmino should reprise his role as commander-in-chief on the front line.

While he did on occasion play in midfield for Hoffenheim and has frequently played on the left wing and as a number 10 for Liverpool, it is his strength of hold up play and speed of thought and execution in finding space that has been the basis of his most stand out moments in a red shirt.

Liverpool return to Premier League action next Saturday with a visit to Watford. Would Bobby Firmino make your line up and if so, why?