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15th Sep 2019

Roberto Firmino strengthens case that he – not Salah or Mane – is Liverpool’s most influential player

Simon Lloyd

Look back at the last ten league games played at Anfield and a pattern emerges.

Liverpool win – often comfortably – but almost always do so after scoring an early opener. Only Arsenal and Chelsea have come through the first half an hour unscathed. Even so, both have returned to London without a single point.

This considered, Steve Bruce would have been delighted at how the early stages had unfolded for his Newcastle side on Saturday. Sticking rigidly to the same blueprint they executed so successfully at Tottenham last month, they had not only nullified the expected early blitz from the European champions but also took a surprise lead courtesy of Jetro Willems.

It didn’t last, of course, but even when Sadio Mane’s unerring finish had restored parity just shy of the half-hour mark, there was still a feeling that Liverpool were flat, some way from their scintillating best.

The change came before half-time with the introduction of Roberto Firmino, replacing the largely ineffective Divock Origi after he picked up an injury.

Firmino, Jurgen Klopp later explained, had been benched after featuring in both of Brazil’s matches over the international break – one in Miami; the other in Los Angeles. As he proved within three minutes of his introduction, he needed little time to shake the air miles from his limbs.

Receiving the ball after Christian Atsu’s attempts to break through the middle of the field had been halted, Firmino slotted a ball into the path of Mane, enticing Martin Dubravka from his six-yard box. The goalkeeper could – and should – have dealt with it. When he didn’t, the outcome was inevitable as Mane nudged it over the line.

From that moment on, there was a marked improvement from the home side. It wasn’t followed by the glut of goals some might have anticipated, but the Brazilian was on hand to play a decisive role in the third and final goal. Occupying a pocket of space in front of the Newcastle back line, Firmino was found by Mo Salah with his back to goal. Affording himself a touch with his right foot, he quickly flicked the ball with his left, perfectly into the path of Salah’s surging dart forward. The Egyptian did the rest, the contest settled.

Though Firmino finished the game as the only one of Liverpool’s front trio without a goal, the role he played in the victory – despite only being on the field for little over 50 minutes – saw him named man of the match.

The former Hoffenheim forward has weighed in with 45 goals for his club in the last two seasons: an impressive return, but inferior to the tallies of Salah and Mane. But while he may lag slightly behind his two teammates in terms of goals scored, this was another strong piece of evidence to suggest he is now the most influential player at Anfield.

As was the case for Mane’s second, Firmino boasts the guile and craft to slice open a defence with a pass from deep. The audacious flick with which he bamboozled Paul Dummett to lay on Salah’s goal is exactly what you’d expect of a Brazilian international, too. But as Virgil van Dijk suggested while speaking to BT after the game, the positions which Firmino takes up when not on the ball are almost just as important as what he does with it – unsettling defenders, creating space for Salah and Mane to exploit.

“I know how difficult it is for a centre-back if the striker is dropping,” Van Dijk explained.  “You don’t want to go as a central defender. He is making life difficult for any defender in the world.”

To only highlight these qualities, however, would be to do Firmino a disservice. Yes, he scores goals with impressive regularity. Yes, he is capable of an eye-of-the-needle pass or a fancy flick. But what makes him such an asset to this Liverpool team is that he fuses all this with an outstanding work rate. For all he brings in an attacking sense, he is an embodiment of the tireless pressing with which this Klopp side has become synonymous.

“It’s unbelievable just how smart he is in decision-making, how good he is technically, how fit he is, how much he enjoys the really hard work,” Klopp said of him after the victory over Burnley last month.

“Being skilled like Bobby is one thing. Mix it up with the attitude he puts in, that’s unbelievable.”

Manchester City’s defeat to Norwich at Carrow Road later in the day means Liverpool have opened up a five-point lead at the Premier League summit. While nobody connected to Liverpool is getting ahead of themselves at this early stage in the season, should their promising early season form crystallise into another title charge, it’s certain Firmino will play a starring role.