It was the British writer Kitty Muggeridge, speaking of the television presenter David Frost, who said he had "risen without trace." It’s not quite true of Roberto Firmino, but it’s fair to say that when he left the Brazilian second-division club Figueirense for Hoffenheim in 2010, nobody thought that he’d be joining Liverpool for £29 million five years later.
When Dunga called him up to the Brazil squad in November last year, many in the country reacted with bewilderment. He was an unknown, something that is becoming an increasingly common occurrence as football’s global economics mean young talent is increasingly swept to Europe and elsewhere before it’s had time to make an impression at home. Four goals in nine games, though—only five of them starts—has begun to win round the Brazilian public.
The most recent of those goals came against Venezuela on Sunday, a simple finish form a superb Willian cross. It would be misleading, though, to make too much of that. Firmino has started two games at this Copa America but, his goal aside, the lasting impression he’s left has been an astonishing miss against Colombia when, presented with an open goal from 15 yards, he blazed over.
United target Roberto Firmino's shocking miss against Brazil last night https://t.co/fOuOezgGYP— Cesc Fàbregas (@CescMagic) June 18, 2015
Awful as that miss was, suggesting an incapacity to cope under pressure, encouragement can probably be drawn from the fact it didn’t become a career-ender. High-profile misses, particularly when they come at as crucial a stage of the game as that, can destroy a player; Firmino, however, came back and was still hunting down chances in Brazil's third group game, which suggests a certain mental strength.
What’s not clear is exactly what his best position is. At Hoffenheim, Firmino played on the left and at centre-forward but was mainly used as an attacking central midfielder. For Brazil, he is the point striker, the man who was charged with creating space for Neymar and Robinho in the Colombia and Venezuela games respectively. He probably looked at his most effective, though, playing slightly deeper early in the second half of that Colombia game when he switched positions with Neymar to allow the Barcelona star to get away from the marking of Carlos Sanchez.
That raises questions of how Liverpool intend to use him. Having a player who can play either as the main striker or as a No. 10 is useful in that it encourages flexibility, but Liverpool already have a number of players who like the three-quarter role, most notably Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and, intriguingly, Firmino’s Brazil team-mate Philippe Coutinho. For the national side, Coutinho seems rather isolated wide on the left, the positions he would naturally take up for Liverpool occupied by either Robinho, Neymar or Firmino.
Does that, then, mean Brendan Rodgers—or the transfer committee—sees Firmino as more of an out-and-out striker, the cover or partner for the oft-injured Daniel Sturridge that both Mario Balotelli and Fabio Borini have failed to be? Or does he believe him to be the replacement for Luis Suarez, the search for which already seems doomed?
Firmino’s goal return is nothing like as impressive as Suarez’s—his seven goals in 33 games last season came at a rate of only one per 13.6 shots, recorded by WhoScored.com. A basic rule of thumb, as established by the analyst Charles Reep and borne out by statistics since, is that the average player scores with roughly one in nine shots. However, there are some similarities in his capacity to play in multiple positions, his energy and his capacity to regain possession, demonstrated by his 2.7 tackles and 1.1 interceptions per game.
That suggests Liverpool may be looking to play a high-pressing game next season, using Firmino as a first line of defence. The question, then, is where he will be used? The hope, presumably, is that he can give Liverpool back a versatility and an aggression high up the pitch they perhaps lacked at times last season.