Liverpool's Roberto Firmino: Two Strikers for the Price of One

Jack LangContributor IFebruary 22, 2019

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Not many forwards would promise to score a no-look header one day and enthusiastically volunteer to play in defensive midfield if needed—in the same career, let alone in the same conversation.

Roberto Firmino, though, is not like other forwards.

That much has been clear since his arrival in the Premier League in 2015. It might sound lofty, but the Brazilian, with his incessant movement and knack for vacating the spaces that his team-mates most enjoy attacking, has challenged our assumptions about what a striker can do.

His goal record is not to be sniffed at—he scored 27 in all competitions last term—but the numbers alone fail to capture what he brings to Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp has called him "the engine of the team," and it doesn't take a body language expert to know how Mo Salah and Sadio Mane feel about playing alongside him. 

It's almost as if there are two players living in the same body—a thought only strengthened by meeting the man. He's quiet, for a start; the flashy outfits and that megawatt grin belie a gentle soul. On a brisk morning in Liverpool, Firmino is polite, thoughtful and winningly low-key.

Modest, too. Take his own definition of his role in Klopp's system, which borders on the bashful. "I play for the team," he tells B/R. "Sometimes it's a false nine, sometimes a more fixed centre-forward role." He has, since our conversation, increasingly been deployed as a classic No. 10. "But I always like to be helping my colleagues, whether it's by scoring goals or setting them up," he adds. "I get a lot of joy out of that."

The Liverpool faithful certainly get a kick out of watching him play. Bobby—"I didn't know what that meant at the start," he laughs—has become a firm fan favourite, thanks in large part to his willingness to zip around the park like a wind-up toy for 90 minutes twice a week. If there is a blade of grass at Anfield that Firmino hasn't covered, it's probably only a matter of time.

Yet effort alone doesn't inspire adoration, and, yes, we're right back at that intriguing dualism. Firmino is also a natural entertainer, with the full range of feints and flicks that that description entails. He darts between defenders with the agility and balance of a tightrope walker. And he has a taste for the spectacular, which comes to the fore whenever he has the opportunity to dust off one of his trademark no-look finishes.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29:  Roberto Firmino of Liverpool scores his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal FC at Anfield on December 29, 2018 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

"I remember the first no-look goal I scored for Hoffenheim," he says. "Against Werder Bremen, I think. Something like that. I rounded the goalkeeper and turned away from it. It came from nowhere; the idea just came to me. It's dangerous, isn't it? You can miss out on a goal. But whenever the chance comes, I do it."

The nonchalance of it has struck a chord with the FIFA generation and underlines Firmino's determination to enjoy himself on the pitch. And while we're edging towards a dog-eared old stereotype here—behold, the carefree samba star!—the 27-year-old says he does see himself within the great Brazilian tradition.

"My idol in football was always Ronaldinho Gaucho," he explains. "It was that time when he was creating so much magic, playing incredible football. He was my role model. It's really good to be able to show your ability to the fans. Being happy on the pitch, where you're doing what you love, is important."

The affair started early. Firmino's family didn't have much—his father made ends meet by selling drinks from a trolley on the streets of Maceio—but young Roberto always had a football at his feet. Or in his bed, as it turns out. "I used to sleep with my ball," he remembers with a smile. "I don't know whether that made a difference, but it's good to dream big. And I dreamed of being a footballer."

Liverpool's Brazilian midfielder Roberto Firmino (L) celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the English Premier League football match between Stoke City and Liverpool at the Bet365 Stadium in Stoke-on-Trent, central England on April 8, 2017. / A

Yet for all his admiration for Ronaldinho, Firmino wasn't initially cast in a creative role. "I started off as a holding midfielder for my local team, CRB," Firmino explains. "It was only as I went through the age groups that I started to change into more of an attacking midfielder."

That explains plenty. His position may have shifted in the intervening years, but the urge to disrupt has stayed with him: According to the Premier League website, only Emre Can made more tackles than Firmino's 65 for Liverpool in league games last season, and his ability to lead a press is unparalleled. So would he be up for reprising his old position if, say, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and James Milner all got injured? The response is emphatic: "Oh, definitely. I would even play in goal if that helped the team. I'd do anything."

Firmino's big break came at the age of 16, when he went for a trial with Figueirense, some 3,000 kilometres from home. He could hardly have made a stronger first impression. "We had a fitness session in the morning—I trained well—and after lunch we played matches," Firmino says. "I scored two bicycle kicks. Two of them, right on the very first day! That impressed them a lot, and the next day I found out that I had passed the test."

Hemerson Maria, Figueirense's under-17 coach at the time, labelled him a "phenomenon." And that wasn't all he called him. For a fortnight, until the teenager finally plucked up the courage to correct him, Maria spent every training session barking orders at "Alberto" Firmino. "Yes, I just remembered that recently," laughs the subject of the mix-up. "I had forgotten about it. I was very quiet, very shy, and I didn't tell him my actual name. For two weeks, I was Alberto. He said I was crazy for not having told him earlier."

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Roberto Firmino’s tie is straight out of 3017 🤖 (📸 via Instagram/roberto_firmino) https://t.co/BBC9AcH054

That was a minor obstacle to overcome, but the next challenge in his career would prove altogether more testing. His impressive displays at the 2009 Copinha youth tournament drew interest from Europe and the welcome offer of a trial from Marseille. But opportunity turned into ordeal at Madrid's Barajas airport; Firmino didn't have the documents required to make it through immigration and, after a frantic series of phone calls to family and Figueirense staff came to nought, was deported back to Brazil.

It was a hugely stressful situation for a 17-year-old who didn't speak Spanish: "An agent approached me, saying he wanted to take me to France. I got stuck at immigration and had to go back. It was all new to me. I couldn't understand what they were saying, so I got quite anxious. I was just a kid. All I remember is that I cried a lot."

Happily, nine years later, he is at least able to put a positive spin on the experience. "We learn from the things that happen to us in life," he says. "It was just one of those things. You have to look for the positives and grow."

Grow he did, first as an ever-present for Figueirense as they won promotion back to Brazil's top flight and then for Hoffenheim, who picked him up for a bargain €4 million in January 2011. He would have been forgiven for having reservations about Europe after his Madrid nightmare, but his ambition spoke loudest.

"I didn't think twice about going to Germany," Firmino insists. "It was something I wanted, something I chose. The first few months were difficult, of course. The culture, the mentality, the food, the weather...I arrived in the winter, straight from the heat of Brazil. The first three or four months were tough, but after that, I started to play more often, and from then on it was just happiness."

The adidas Nemeziz boots Firmino will wear against Manchester United this weekend
The adidas Nemeziz boots Firmino will wear against Manchester United this weekendAdidas

Firmino was a roaring success in the Bundesliga, with his energy and dynamism central to Hoffenheim's plans. After the 2013/14 campaign, which yielded 16 league goals, it was clear that stardom—and regular European football—was beckoning. Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers won the race for his services a year later.

The ultimate beneficiary, however, has been Klopp, who appears to have found a kindred spirit in the Brazilian. No one better represents this Liverpool side; no one has more successfully internalised the principles that underpin the German's approach.

It is not a connection that Firmino takes for granted. "I've learned so much from Klopp," he says. "We knew each other a bit in Germany. I played against his Dortmund side for Hoffenheim a few times and scored goals against him. I was really pleased when he arrived here. He said he was looking forward to working with me.

"Of course, I had to show him what I could do in order to play. But I've learned a lot from him. He's a father figure, so passionate. He's completely changed the team in terms of tactics and everything else. We've improved and grown with him."

Firmino has been a massive part of the improvement. And while you could fill a book with all the compliments Klopp has paid him over the past few years, there isn't a coach in the world who wouldn't jump at the chance to work with the ultimate two-strikers-in-one package.


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