With Diogo Jota and Xherdan Shaqiri battling for spots on the team, pressure can come on a center forward who rarely scores
He wasn’t the only one.
When the rain fell on Etihad, Jürgen Klopp took his step.
After the 1-1 draw with more than half an hour of play, the Liverpool boss believed a change was needed. Xherdan Shaqiri was called from the shadows into the spotlight.
Manchester City center. The great. Go and make an impression, my son.
Firmino was the man to be replaced. Red’s # 9 is usually made for games like this; Games that require tactical sharpness, safe touch and positional discipline, and relentless pace of work, but this time his race was completed within 59 minutes. When Liverpool sought control, the Brazilian was sacrificed.
Klopp had insisted on Friday that Firmino remains “the differentiator” for the Premier League champions and that critics who suggest his influence is waning or that his modest goal return is becoming an issue should be ignored. “I can’t help these people,” he said at his pre-game press conference.
His actions supported his words. Firmino, who was eliminated from the starting line-up against Atalanta earlier this week, was back against City. Klopp also kept the trio that did the damage in Bergamo – Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and hat-trick hero Diogo Jota.
It was certainly a bold approach – even Pep Guardiola seemed a little surprised when asked about it before kick-off – but it threatened to pay off when Liverpool led the early exchange. The fearsome four of the Red Guardiolas had sharp and direct on the rear foot from the first whistle.
They led within 13 minutes, Salah converting from the penalty spot after Kyle Walker’s rash challenge against Mane. That’s eight goals in eight league games for the Egyptian this season. A start that only Fernando Torres (2009-10) and Robbie Fowler (1995-96) can achieve in the Premier League for Liverpool.
Firmino of course finds it a little more difficult to achieve the goals. His last 31 appearances in all competitions have resulted in just three goals, with just one in twelve games this season.
It shows up too. He hesitated when he saw a goal against City within a minute, decided to go around Ederson and screw it up. In the second half, he wasted another presentable opening and shot way over the bar when options were available.
In front of the goal, his confidence seems to be lacking and there has generally been a few too many careless touches. The room was there, he just wasn’t using it well enough, often enough.
Klopp rightly talks about anything else Firmino brings – his intuitive pushing, his ability to connect the game, attract defenders, and make space for others – but there is a reason questions are asked.
Perhaps this slump – and it is a slump – is to be expected. Liverpool are perhaps the most intense team in the world and Firmino is the player who plays the most games for them.
His workload was immense. He has made 166 appearances since the start of the 2017-18 campaign. Only Salah at 165 comes close to that number.
Throw in a World Cup and a Copa America where he started every game in Brazil’s triumphant campaign, and that definitely adds up. Few, if any, top footballers give as much as he does week after week. And he turned 29 last month.
Klopp knows that. Firmino, whether in shape or not, remains central to his plans. The doubt doesn’t even come in.
“I don’t have to say a word about Bobby and how important he is to us,” he said last week. “I’m not wasting my time on it.”
Maybe not, but with Jota – seven goals in eleven games since joining from Wolves – he’s settled in well and Shaqiri is fit again, looking bright and hungry. At least Klopp has the opportunity to switch his attackers, where that may not have been the case in recent seasons.
That could be good news for Firmino. If someone deserves a break here and there from time to time, after all, it is. And if someone has enough credit in the bank to break them down, it is him.
However, Klopp will hope that his spark will return soon. And if so, Liverpool will take a break.
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