We know all about the pressing now – Gegen or otherwise – but there was at least one moment during Liverpool’s statement, statesmen-like performance at Manchester City which underlined that this brave new world full of beards and big laughs is about more than just running around a lot.
There was more than a touch of fortune about the Reds’ opener at the Etihad Stadium – with Eliaquim Mangala seemingly becoming disorientated by the thought of his own transfer fee – but there was nothing lucky about the second goal.
Roberto Firmino – just moments after being instructed to play higher up the pitch by Jurgen Klopp – decided that that’s what he’d better do, and after Lucas Leiva, James Milner and Adam Lallana all got a touch to the ball to send it forward, the Brazilian was suddenly occupying City’s two centre-backs, driving both to distraction.
His subsequent drift right and sumptuous dream of a cross for Philippe Coutinho was exactly the kind of thing that Liverpool so suddenly and dramatically stopped doing once Luis Suarez walked out of the door. It wasn’t so much a sight for sore eyes as a loving embrace for them.
Suarez comparisons don’t help anyone, of course, but what are we to make of Firmino?
The Brazilian has been one of the great mysteries of this Liverpool season, with a back injury sustained in that pyrrhic League Cup victory over Carlisle United stalling his progress. He would never again play for Brendan Rodgers – the man who signed him – but it is what he can do under Klopp which should excite.
Because in the German, Firmino could have found a kindred spirit, and a manager who knows all about him from the pair’s shared experiences in the Bundesliga.
Injuries to others have somewhat forced his hand, but Klopp has now fielded Firmino as his central attacker in the away wins at Chelsea and Manchester City, an approach which occupied the defenders and allowed Coutinho the time and space to rediscover the good form which was startlingly absent before the trip to Stamford Bridge.
He’s now scored four goals in three games, but it is the link-up with Firmino which really excites.
In his fellow countryman, Coutinho will see a player who will be prepared to create space for him, and one who can time both his own runs and the passes to find the runs of others to perfection – as shown by his roles in the first three goals at the Etihad Stadium.
All of which means that Klopp has a serious dilemma when – and it seems to be imminently – that Christian Benteke and Daniel Sturridge are fit enough to return his starting lineup. Does he risk sacrificing that newfound fluidity in order to restore his big-hitters to the team?
He would probably point to Benteke’s roles off the bench in those wins at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad – a goal in one, a cameo which should have produced one in the other – as evidence that this is a squad game and it shouldn’t really matter who starts, but Firmino is the man in possession of the centre-forward’s shirt at the moment and rightly so.
There was so much hype and back-slapping when the Reds managed to sign the Brazilian in the summer, largely because of his price tag, his position in his national team and the belief that Manchester United were also after him, but his qualities as a player remained a mystery to many. He was simply a transfer ‘win’ at a time when Liverpool needed one. Whether or not he’d actually end up being any good was almost secondary.
And he’s still got that air of mystery about him, something which Premier League defences are finding out.
The revisionism of the Rodgers reign is harsh, and it’s unfair to say that Firmino wouldn’t have flourished under him because we’ll never know, but the Northern Irishman’s record with attacking players he signed post-January 2013 (the Sturridge-Coutinho window) doesn’t do him any favours. There would have been a worry that Firmino would have become another Lazar Markovic, forever shunted around into different positions and bereft of confidence.
Now, though, buoyed by a manager who speaks his language – in more ways than one – and his central role in two of Liverpool’s most impressive away wins for years, Firmino has his perfect starting point.
His appearance record in Germany shows that the injury he suffered this season isn’t a sign of chronic problems, and that he should be available for the majority of matches.
And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him starting and starring in those games, as Klopp embraces the privilege of having a player who is prepared to put in the hard yards whilst also sprinkling moments of quality all over the pitch.
That pass for Coutinho could be just the start…
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