In the coming weeks, I’ll be profiling some of world football’s more overlooked players in a series called the Under-the-Radar All Stars. Some will be names you’ve heard of, but may not yet fully grasp how great they are, while others may be totally unfamiliar. Established star or up-and-comer, each Under-the-Radar All Star has been unassumingly building a strong career and the hope is that this series brings some of football’s underrated players into view.
Hidden away at a mid-table Bundesliga side is one of the best young midfielders in the world: Roberto Firmino.
Firmino signed for TSG Hoffenheim in December of 2010 from Brazilian side Figueirense. He played a small role in his debut season, making five starts in 11 appearances en route to three goals.
A Hoffenheim first-team place opened when David Alaba rejoined Bayern Munich following a loan spell, and Firmino claimed it for himself—Alaba played as a central midfielder at Hoffenheim before Jupp Heynckes expertly transformed him into arguably the world’s best left-back. Today, Pep Guardiola uses Alaba as a midfielder in his total football scheme, but back to Firmino.
In the 2011-12 season, the Brazilian was Hoffenheim’s second-leading scorer, recording seven goals and one assist in 30 league appearances. He posted similar numbers in the following year before putting it all together in the 2013-14 campaign.
Firmino collected 16 goals and 11 assists in 33 starts, finishing the league season sixth in goals and second in assists. His 27 goals accounted for was second in the Bundesliga—Marco Reus and his 29 goals accounted for was the only one to top Firmino.
Though he does commit way too many fouls, he’s registered two or more tackles per game in each of his four years with Hoffenheim. He does need to cut down on the infractions, but that’s an impressive number for an attacking player, and with only five bookings last year, Firmino doesn’t recklessly dive into challenges.
Hoffenheim manager Markus Gisdol prefers the 4-2-3-1 and, via WhoScored.com, Firmino played the vast majority of his 2013-14 matches as a central attacking midfielder.
Giving Firmino a defined role proved massively beneficial as, in years past, he was deployed all over the pitch, seeing time at right and left wing and in a deeper midfield position. Fielding him in the hole behind centre-forward Anthony Modeste maximized his skill set and while his versatility is commendable, Firmino is at his best as a No. 10.
So, it should come as no surprise the Brazilian posted career bests in a number of categories during his extended run as an attacking midfielder last term.
He shot the ball much more readily, averaging almost a full shot more per game as compared to his three previous seasons with Hoffenheim, and his 2.8 shots per game was ninth in the Bundesliga.
Playing centrally allowed Firmino to be a key facilitator, and he averaged 2.1 key passes per game, good for a top-15 league mark, while his 11 assists were second behind only Marco Reus. He also averaged 0.5 accurate through balls per match, tied with Dortmund’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan for league best.
He’s always been a superb dribbler but exploded last season as his average of 4.9 per game was second in league play behind just Franck Ribery—he barely edged out Firmino despite playing in about half the matches and, statistically speaking, that smaller sample size, if extrapolated, could be subject to regression. In fact, Ribery was the only player in Europe’s top five leagues to edge out Firmino in the dribbles statistic.
One of the few downsides to his transition is he began to turn the ball over at an alarming rate. His three turnovers per game were by far the worst in the Bundesliga, and the difference between Firmino and second-place Adrian Ramos’ 2.3 turnovers per game was the same as the gap between Ramos and 12th-place Karim Bellarabi.
Even with the turnovers, through finding his niche as a No. 10, Firmino put together a brilliant season and finished the year as one of the Bundesliga’s best players.
He registered an average WhoScored Match Rating—performance metric scaled from 1, the worst, to 10, the best—of 7.98, fourth in the league behind Ribery, fellow Under-the-Radar All Star Ricardo Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski.
Firmino has to feel slighted he hasn’t once been capped for his national team, as he’s kept up and even outplayed some of his direct competition.
Which 22-year-old Brazilian had the most goals in European league play last season? You may think, “Easy; it’s Neymar.” Nope, it was Firmino.
How about which 22-year-old Brazilian had the most assists in European league play last season? Surely it had to be one of Philippe Coutinho, Lucas Moura, Neymar or Oscar? Well, if you picked Moura you’re right as his 11 helpers tied him with none other than Firmino.
Let’s take a look at how his numbers last season compared to some of his more well-known compatriots.
|Firmino vs. Brazilian Internationals: A 2013-14 Statistical Comparison|
|Player||Appearances||Goals||Assists||Shots/game||Key Passes/game||Tackles/game||Dribbles/game||Through balls/game|
We see he is the clear winner in goals, tied in assists with the man who gets to supply the incomparable Zlatan Ibrahimovic and by far the most prolific dribbler, while he either ties or marginally wins the other categories.
Now, he’s the unrivaled first option in nearly everything offensively for Hoffenheim, while Coutinho, Lucas, Neymar and Oscar are surrounded by much more talent, so it’s almost a given he’d have some higher individual statistics. The counterpoint to that argument, though, would be because the other players are surrounded by more talent, they’d have more goalscoring opportunities and therefore should tally higher goal/assist numbers.
Nearly every Brazilian international playing in Europe does so for a big club, meaning Firmino will likely need a move abroad if he hopes to don the famous yellow kit.
Unfortunately for him, attacking midfield is one of the deepest positions in world football and almost all of the big clubs either don’t use a No. 10 or have the position filled by someone of equal or higher ability than the Hoffenheim man.
Metro reported Arsenal lined up a bid this summer, as did Liverpool, also per Metro, and though neither move materialized, for the player it may be for the better. Both teams are loaded with attacking options, and adding Firmino to the mix would further complicate the depth chart and take away playing time from all parties involved.
The initial Metro piece cites Inter Milan as a rumored suitor and the Nerazzurri rank as a much better destination. Marek Hamsik was brilliant as a No. 10 under Walter Mazzarri at Napoli, and Mazzarri instilled a similar system when he took over at Inter.
Ricardo Alvarez was fantastic in that role last season, but he lacks direct competition and isn’t totally indispensable. Bringing in Firmino would push Alvarez and bring a tremendous amount of dynamism in that Firmino, who has excelled as a striker in limited appearances, could interchange with the equally versatile Rodrigo Palacio to devastating effect.
Valued at €25 million by Transfermarkt, it doesn’t look likely he’ll move this summer, but when he does choose to leave Hoffenheim, expect him to be a hot property.
One of the best talents in an age group loaded with them, Firmino is on track to be a world-beating attacking midfielder. The only question remaining is which European powerhouse he will be playing for when he reaches his tremendous potential.