Three games into the new Premier League season, Liverpool sit top with nine points from a possible nine and seven goals scored with none conceded. Five of those seven have come from the lethal African duo of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, although the other member of their forward trio has yet to open his account this season. It’s maybe a little surprising that Roberto Firmino is yet to find the net in 2018/19, but while Liverpool’s number nine might not be terrorising goalkeepers in recent weeks, his unselfish play has not gone unappreciated by Reds supporters. Here, we look at the changing role that the Brazilian has been playing so far this season.
Firmino v West Ham
1 shot (0 on target), 47 touches (6 in the box)
Liverpool won plenty of plaudits last season for their vibrant, scintillating attacking play and that was very much in evidence on the opening day of the season when they blew West Ham away with a display of effervescent football. The Reds hit four without reply in their first competitive assignment of 2018/19, with Mane netting twice and Salah opening the scoring. Firmino didn’t find the net, but in frequently dropping back to the third quarter of the pitch, if you will, he linked up play very nicely for his attacking colleagues to make hay.
Of Firmino’s 47 touches against the Hammers, only six were inside the penalty area – he had more touches (nine) in Liverpool’s half than in West Ham’s box. The heat map would indicate that he spent the bulk of the game in a slightly right-sided attacking midfield area, rarely drifting out to the touchlines that were hugged by Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to devastating effect on the day. Firmino’s only attempt was a header from six yards that he steered wide, with both him and Salah going for the same ball but neither truly taking command of the opportunity. He was withdrawn in the 69th minute with Liverpool three goals to the good, backup striker Daniel Sturridge rounding off the scoring after coming on as a late substitute for Salah.
Firmino v Crystal Palace
1 shot (0 on target), 53 touches (3 in the box)
After the opening day romp over West Ham, Liverpool withstood a far tougher test away to Crystal Palace a week ago to emerge with a vital 2-0 victory, their fifth in a row at Selhurst Park. The second of those goals didn’t arrive until deep into stoppage time, testifying to how difficult the Reds had it in south London before securing the points. Mane registered his third goal of the season after James Milner had opened the scoring with a penalty, so it was an industrious rather than a prolific night for Firmino.
He clocked 53 touches against the Eagles, but remarkably only three inside the home side’s penalty area – that was just two more than what he had in Liverpool’s box, doing his bit to clear a corner at one stage. Roy Hodgson’s team restricted Firmino to just one shot, an effort from 20 yards which narrowly missed the target. Again he spent the majority of the game between the halfway line and the edge of the Palace penalty box, although he was more evenly spread across the width of the pitch rather than occupying pockets on the right-hand side. That more withdrawn role owed partly to the pressure under which Liverpool found themselves during the second half as the Eagles pursued a late equaliser.
Firmino v Brighton
5 shots (2 on target, 2 blocked), 63 touches (8 in the box)
Liverpool racked up a third win on the bounce against Brighton on Saturday, but the resolute Seagulls limited the Premier League leaders to just one goal; indeed, it was Liverpool’s first 1-0 win in any competition in just over a year. Salah’s strike midway through the first half was just about enough to preserve the Reds’ 100% start to the season, although Jurgen Klopp’s men had several chances to add to their goals tally.
One of those fell to Firmino, whose early header was brilliantly saved by Mat Ryan. The Brighton goalkeeper was involved with the Brazilian again in the second half, bundling him over in the box in an incident that Chris Kavanagh somehow deemed a foul against Ryan rather than Firmino. The Liverpool striker again occupied the third quarter of the pitch most frequently, but he saw far more penalty box action than in the two previous games and registered two attempts on target against a Brighton side who sat deep for almost the full 90 minutes.
Firmino’s season so far
In three matches, the Brazil striker has had seven shots, two officially on target (and two more blocked) and 163 touches, with 17 of those (10.4%) in the opposition penalty area. That gives him a per-game average of 2.3 shots (0.6 on target) and 54.3 touches (5.6 in the opposition penalty area). These statistics might not seem any way spectacular for a striker who forms part of one of the most feared attacking tridents in world football, but Firmino has matured into a genuine team player under Klopp, having struggled in the early months of his Anfield career in 2015. Just like Mane at the start of this year, he might simply be encountering a brief barren patch goals-wise at the moment before taking flight when the Reds face tougher opponents.
There will come a time later in the campaign when Salah and/or Mane will be rested, injured or suspended, at which point Firmino is far likelier to assume a more typical number nine role. For now, though, he is operating just fine further back the pitch while his fellow forwards deliver the goals.