Firmino's last dance? Liverpool's No.9, Klopp's No.1 & a true Anfield legend
The day that Jurgen Klopp has dreaded for so long is getting closer and closer.
There won’t be a dry eye in the house when Anfield has to say goodbye to Roberto Firmino, whose megawatt smile and no-look finishes have lit the place up for the past seven years.
But even the best things must come to an end, and when the Brazilian does finally call time on his Liverpool career, he can leave with his head held high, having more than played his part in a golden era on Merseyside.
“An incredibly important player to me, and to us,” was how Klopp described Firmino on Friday, and the numbers back up his point. Since he took over as Reds boss in 2015, no player has played more games (330), featured for more minutes (23,478) or registered more assists (70) for him than Firmino, whose total of 103 goals is bettered only by Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
This, though, looks like it will be his last season. His contract expires next summer, and while all parties insist they are relaxed about the situation, and that an extension has not yet been ruled out, he will be able to negotiate with overseas clubs from January 1. The expectation is that he will depart on a free transfer, and with an emotional send-off, at the end of the campaign.
What memories he will leave behind. What a role he has played in Liverpool’s growth and glory under Klopp. An Anfield legend? You bet.
“Bobby is the heart and soul of this team,” said Klopp back in August. “The way we played in the last few years was only possible because of him.”
Ask any of Liverpool’s players and they’d say the same. It is no coincidence, for example, that both Salah and Mane flourished playing alongside Firmino, whose selflessness, movement and ability to press from the front have, in many ways, helped redefine the role of the No.9 in recent years.
“He is the guy who works for the team, who works for everybody and gets them to shine,” Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, has said.
“This piece of the jigsaw - a striker who is generous - is always very difficult to find.”
Find it Liverpool have, though. Firmino was actually signed for Brendan Rodgers, but it was Klopp who was able, swiftly, to unlock his potential, and who has reaped the rewards since.
Rodgers, a good manager and a fine coach, whose Reds reign had run badly off-course by the time summer 2015 arrived, viewed Firmino as a talented-but-flaky attacking midfielder, believing he lacked the speed to play wide and the strength to play as a centre-forward.
Sean O’Driscoll, his assistant, was even less supportive, wondering openly on the training ground why Liverpool’s recruitment team had chosen to commit up to £29 million ($32m) to sign him from Hoffenheim when the manager had been able to land his first-choice striker, Christian Benteke, in any case.
Rodgers and O’Driscoll didn’t last long, sacked after a slow start to the 2015-16 season. In came Klopp, and by the end of his first month in charge Firmino was leading the line for Liverpool in a 3-1 win over Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
A few weeks later came another eye-catching display, and a first Reds goal, against Manchester City and the blueprint had been set, with Firmino as the roving, hard-pressing No.9 and the rest of the side adjusting accordingly.
The arrival of Mane the following summer, and then Salah 12 months later, took that process on. Both were able to hit the ground running on Merseyside, Klopp assembling one of the most devastating, and perfectly-balanced, forward lines the Premier League has ever seen.
Firmino, always, stood at its heart. He has never been the most prolific goalscorer - his career-best tally of 27 came in the 2017-18 campaign and he has never managed more than 16 since - but his fingerprints can be found all over Liverpool’s successes under Klopp.
It was his goal, for example, which made them FIFA Club World Cup winners in Qatar in 2019, he has scored in the quarter-final and the semi-final of the Champions League, and the Reds’ 2019-20 Premier League title-winning season was littered with game-changing contributions, particularly away from home, when he scored vital goals against Southampton, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Leicester, Tottenham and Wolves.
Last season was his most difficult, featuring only 11 goals and his lowest number of appearances (35) since joining Liverpool. But he has started this campaign well - he has already matched last season’s Premier League tally of five goals - and is in line to return to Klopp’s starting XI for Sunday’s trip to Arsenal, a team he has traditionally enjoyed a good record against.
There is no doubt that, in a general sense, Firmino’s game has declined across the past two years. There is a reason he didn’t start the FA Cup or Champions League finals last season (he was injured for the League Cup final), and there is a reason why Klopp has spent more than £140m ($155m) recruiting the likes of Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz, Fabio Carvalho and Darwin Nunez.
He knows that times are changing. Mane and Divock Origi left in the summer, Gini Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren went before them. James Milner’s time is coming to an end, while Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcantara, Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk are all well into their 30s. Salah is too, though his new three-year contract, signed in July, suggests Liverpool have few concerns over his durability, for now.
Firmino’s exit, whenever it comes, will hurt Klopp more than any other. This is his player, the man who has made his team tick, and who makes his fans smile. “The best in the world,” they sing on the Kop. When it gets going, it really is something.
Klopp will hope it gets a few more airings between now and May. He would love to hear it ringing out at the Emirates on Sunday, for starters.