Whatever the response to Liverpool’s crushing defeat by Aston Villa, you can rest assured that the result will serve as a catalyst for change. That just seems to be the way for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
His teams are rarely beaten comprehensively, but when they are, the lost battles which informed the outcome are identified, analysed and addressed.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs’ 4-1 drubbing of the Reds at Wembley in 2017 is often referred to as the case in point. Journalists close to the club have written at length about how that performance away to Tottenham forced Klopp into a major rethink of his approach to Premier League football. On a lesser note, but a key one nonetheless, the prematurely hooked Dejan Lovren was never again looked upon as a first-choice for the Anfield side.
A Sadio Mané sending off led to a 5-0 defeat at The Etihad that same season, but that game only served to light the first flames of what has become a fiery rivalry between two of the world’s greatest tacticians. Just months later, Klopp had his revenge, a 4-3 win being the first over Pep Guardiola’s ‘Centurions’ in-waiting, who had been on course for an ‘invincible’ season.
The 3-1 reverse in the Champions League final of 2018 was not an embarrassing scoreline by any means, but a hugely significant one in terms of inspiring Anfield revolution. Loris Karius had shown signs of promise in the campaign preceding that fixture. After it, Liverpool made Alisson Becker the most expensive goalkeeper of all time.
In fact, it could be argued that the response to this year’s ill-fated visit to Vicarage Road was relatively minimal. That said, this defeat came against a somewhat rotated side preparing for a Champions League home leg against Atlético Madrid, where Liverpool responded with an incredible (if ultimately fruitless) performance.
Spanish reserve, Adriàn, has been subject to a mountain of criticism since Sunday’s shocker, but replacing the second-choice goalkeeper – be it in January, be it next summer, be it next week – would arguably not be a reaction of the magnitude that we have come to expect from the man who restored Borussia Dortmund and then Liverpool to the world stage.
Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold both had very poor games at Villa Park, with the hosts feasting on the right-side of Liverpool’s backline. Gomez even followed in Lovren’s footsteps with regards to being subbed by Klopp when things began to look ugly – the substitution of a centre-half is a Klopp message to the world that things are not as they should be.
Neither will be cast aside like Lovren was, though. Trent remains a pivotal figure in this Liverpool side, while Gomez has shown immense quality when in-form, and is young enough to learn from his mistakes.
Perhaps Liverpool will abandon the defensive high-line, which they have employed vigorously over the first few weeks of the new season. Certainly, respected pundits have suggested that it was Liverpool’s main source of problems last Sunday.
However, its effectiveness versus both Chelsea and Arsenal clearly delighted Jürgen Klopp, and it is a tactic as impressive as it is oppressive when utilised correctly and in conjunction with an effective press.
And that was the problem that Liverpool had against Aston Villa, last weekend. The press was horrible. It was messy. It was disorganised. It was inconsistent. It was sporadic. It was everything that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool isn’t.
His track record suggests that Klopp’s method will be to prevent that high line and high press from ever breaking down in that fashion again, not to abandon it.
So how does he do that?
Before I go on to analyse the player we all came to read about, it’s vital to look more broadly at why the press failed at Villa Park. The first factor was the absence of Sadio Mané. Though most recognised for his attacking excellence, last season Sadio drew new acclaim by developing a knack for scoring big goals in big moments. He’s also one of the most hardworking and defensively disciplined wingers you’ll find.
While the signing of Diogo Jota would never have been sanctioned if the Portuguese were not himself a willing worker, the nuances and subtleties of a Klopp press cannot be mastered after a mere week of training sessions. The high press needs everyone working in-sync or it breaks down immediately. The moment the opposition have an easy pass into their midfield, they obtain immediate threat. But, if the press works cohesively, as we saw at Stamford Bridge, that first pass into midfield should be incredibly difficult to come by.
Had Mané been playing against Villa, or Jota been more settled into the Liverpool way, there is no possibility that Liverpool would have been so open. As with Mané, Liverpool have looked lost in recent years when either Mohamed Salah or Roberto Firmino have been forced absentees.
It is for this reason that the Reds’ number nine’s permanent inclusion in that central starting berth has remained almost completely unquestioned, despite some bad performances during the past twelve months, especially.
A rewind to last September, when Liverpool looked uninspired as they went behind at home to a Newcastle side lacking in quality. After half an hour, Divock Origi limped off, and Firmino returned to the fold. The Anfield side clicked back into groove, overturned the deficit, and might have finished with a more resounding scoreline than their ultimate 3-1 victory represented. The statbooks show that the Brazilian ‘false nine’ found two assists, but his overall contribution was incalculable.
That was to be the standout moment of Bobby Firmino’s season, however. A game which really showed, ‘you really don’t know what you have ‘til it’s gone’.
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But, nearly a year on, we have been treated to fewer and fewer vintage Firmino moments to show us what we actually do have.
His goal return since a phenomenal 2017/18 campaign has been much remarked upon, with Liverpool fans generally in agreement that, while the former Hoffenheim man should find the net more often, scoring is very much ancillary to his overall performance. A drought from either Mané or Salah would be far greater cause for concern than from Firmino, who can do his job to perfection and hardly register a shot.
But what I want to look at now is his overall contribution, because Firmino being excused for shortcomings in certains areas, like goalscoring, does rely upon him fulfilling the role expected of him in the Klopp system.
In terms of defending from the front, Firmino unsurprisingly led the front three both in terms of successful tackles (1.43) and pressures (6.61) per ninety minutes in the 2017/18 season. These figures dwarfed Salah’s from that campaign, (0.25 and 4.12, respectively) and were also better than Mané’s (0.82 and 5.02).
The fact that his two partners-in-crime have bettered their numbers since then is not a criticism of Firmino, but the fact that Bobby’s defensive returns have actually regressed should be a worry.
On the pressing front, Firmino did remain in pole come the 2018/19 season. The gap between his return and Salah’s had massively reduced, but that trend most highlights the Egyptian’s improvement in that area, with Firmino’s figure (6.52) not far from that of 17/18. The Brazilian had dropped off sharply from his peak of 7.24 in 2018/19, however, suggesting that his pressing levels are indeed on a downward trajectory.
Last season it was Liverpool’s Senegalese star whose tackling production was the most notable. Mané’s 1.15 complete tackles per 90 minutes is a superb figure for an attacking player, and highlights just how unbelievably impressive Firmino’s 17/18 return (1.43) was. But, Firmino has regressed in that area: the Brazilian international has seen a reduction of nearly 50% in his ball-winning output, down to 0.78.
Firmino’s tackling rate has reduced, his pressing rate has reduced, and- while this season does not represent a large sample size- the trend is continuing at the start of this campaign.
Both Salah and Mané’s tackling numbers have improved, and Salah’s pressing numbers have skyrocketed, while Mané’s already good level has been maintained. Roberto Firmino is significantly behind where he was two years ago in both categories.
What would sanction this regression, and possibly explain it, would be if Firmino’s role had been changed to represent more of a striking option, and lessen his defensive burden (intrinsically increasing that of his teammates).
That is not the case, though.
All three members of the Reds’ frontline are posting similar assist totals to what they were in the 2017/18 season, and although Salah’s goals per 90 have reduced, that merely reflects his all-time great return from that particular Premier League campaign.
The Egyptian continues to score as regularly as he did in 2018/19, and at one of the best rates in the league. Now Sadio Mané’s rate has improved, though, and is touching Salah’s crazy level. It is only Bobby Firmino whose goalscoring has regressed season on season.
I have not included the equivalent data from the 2020/21 season because the sample size feels too small as of now – Salah is scoring 1.25 goals per 90 minutes, which is surely not sustainable over a whole campaign – but, notably, Roberto Firmino does remain goalless after four starts.
Lastly, and perhaps most worryingly, Firmino is recording fewer touches and fewer passes per game than he was two years ago. The only satisfying explanation of his defensive and attacking output reducing would be that Klopp had altered Firmino’s role to allow him to dictate play more than before, but Bobby is not doing that.
Firmino’s attacking returns peaked in 17/18, his general influence on games and defensive presses peaked in 18/19, but everything regressed in 19/20. Why is this?
There are obviously an infinite number of possible reasons, because football is a sport where every minute offers an infinite amount of possible outcomes based on every split decision, every slight movement and every touch of the ball. Statistics can only paint a one-dimensional picture and measure general trends.
It could well be that Liverpool’s greater emphasis on creation from wide positions has reduced Firmino’s influence on games, but that struggles to explain why Firmino remained so crucial in 2018/19, which was the first year in which we saw an emphasis on the flanks.
It could be that Klopp has asked Firmino to remain more central this past season as a means for finding greater shooting opportunities, but Firmino is not scoring more goals to suggest that he’s profiting in that sense, and Liverpool have not conceded fewer than in the 18/19 season so it doesn’t serve to make the side more defensively structured.
Sure, Firmino could and should have scored many more than he did last season, massively underperforming his xG (expected goals), but that would imply that Firmino is less suited to a role which aims to utilise him more as a goalscorer- so why continue to play him in this changed role, if his role has indeed been changed?
There may be the possibility that Klopp has wanted Firmino to more often cover runners from midfield, and that does bare credence as Liverpool scored more goals from those positions last season, but I cannot understand why that would reduce Firmino’s touches per game. In a team which most often dominates possession- as Liverpool do- the deeper a player is positioned, the more touches you would expect them to make.
The worry for Liverpool is that the burden placed on Firmino’s body has taken its toll, and he can no longer perform his role to the same level that we saw two years ago. He is 29, after all, and while I argued in the summer that someone like Thiago Alcântara is still at his peak at that age, Thiago is not a player whose style is best summarised by his intensity of press.
This theory would help explain the drop off in Firmino’s defensive returns and dwindling influence on build-up play.
Say Firmino has not regressed physically, though, the data suggests that Liverpool have adapted their system and are less reliant on the Brazilian, now channeling their press and build-up play through their star wide-men.
Whatever the case – whether it be that Firmino is performing less effectively in his typical role, or the team’s functionality is less dependant on it – we may now have reached a point where Bobby is no longer ‘undroppable’.
Despite an assist, his touch and ball retention looked way off in that thumping defeat by Aston Villa, with one bad decision leading directly to Villa’s sixth. Based on Klopp’s historical responses to humiliation, it would not shock me if the automatic assumption that Bobby is the system comes under scrutiny. We could even see him dropped to the bench for the visit to Goodison.
Firmino remains a wonderful player, and I do not advocate replacing him just yet, but for me he is no longer as paramount to this Liverpool side as the rest of our deadly frontline. I don’t doubt that Bobby’s intelligent movement remains crucial to the chances that Salah and Mané carve out.
Perhaps Firmino’s next absence will once again serve to remind us of just how disjointed we can be without him. Make no mistake, such a reminder would be very timely indeed.