James Pearce is talking about Bobby. Now, I know our problems run deeper than Bobby, alone, and there's not a goal I like to celebrate more than a Bobby goal. That doesn't happen very often, which, when he's doing his Bobby things, is fine, but, for me, he's been off form for over 12 months now.
Do we need to start talking, more, about Bobby when the transfer window opens?
Liverpool Need to Buy a New Number 9
By James Pearce for The Athletic
We need to talk about Roberto Firmino.
This isn’t to scapegoat the Brazil international for Liverpool’s season of woe. There’s a collective malaise which was there for all to see when another proud record bit the dust on a desperate night at Anfield on Saturday.
A catastrophic run of injuries — with captain Jordan Henderson’s damaged groin the latest hammer blow — has ripped the heart and the spine out of Jürgen Klopp’s title-winners.
Having to field 18 different centre-back pairings since September is preposterous. Liverpool won the Champions League and the Premier League with either Joel Matip or Joe Gomez alongside Virgil van Dijk at the back, and with Henderson and Fabinho in midfield. All are sidelined. It’s not rocket science.
But the issues for Klopp certainly run deeper than the personnel he’s currently without — not least what has happened to the focal point of his attack. Liverpool looked horribly blunt against Everton and Firmino’s form is concerning.
There have been occasional flashes of brilliance from him this season. The assists for Mohamed Salah in the defeats to Manchester United and Leicester City, the goals home and away to Tottenham, and the role he played in the demolition of Crystal Palace in December.
But the influence of Liverpool’s No 9 has dwindled and a dismal return of just six goals in 35 appearances in all competitions this season can’t be ignored. He has netted just once in his last 14 matches.
Firmino has never scored in a Merseyside derby and he didn’t ever look like putting that right in his 12th meeting with Everton. When Liverpool’s best chance of the first half fell to him, he decided to take an extra touch and that enabled Michael Keane to deflect his shot behind. In the second half, one tame effort barely reached Jordan Pickford and another was lashed wildly into the Kop.
After achieving a career-high 27 goals in 2017-18, Firmino’s tally dipped to 16 in 2018-19 and down to 12 last season. There’s a pattern there. His expected goals (xG) tally in the Premier League last season was 13.96 and he managed nine. This time around, his xG is 9.07 and he’s only scored six times.
Whenever Firmino’s output has been questioned over the years, the defence of him has always been robust. Both Klopp and the Kop adore him because he’s the selfless team player with a megawatt smile.
His all-round contribution has always been highlighted — the manner in which he leads the press and creates space for others to exploit. “Bobby plays like 12 instruments in our orchestra and is very important for our rhythm,” insisted his manager earlier this season.
But “the engine” of the team, as Klopp calls him, is spluttering. He only had 54 touches against Everton, the lowest of any outfield Liverpool player who played the full 90 minutes. He won just eight of his 14 duels, gaining possession on four occasions but losing it nine times.
Firmino’s place in the side was the subject of much debate earlier in the season following the impact of Diogo Jota and it will be once again, with the Portugal international set to return from a knee injury in the coming weeks. The lack of firepower in the absence of Jota has been glaring.
Liverpool haven’t scored in open play at Anfield since Sadio Mane converted Matip’s pass against West Bromwich Albion on December 27. They have played 528 minutes on home turf since — nearly nine hours of football — and only have Salah’s penalty against Manchester City to show for their efforts.
It’s bleak and after Everton won across Stanley Park for the first time in 22 years and consigned Liverpool to a fourth straight home defeat for the first time since 1923, Klopp’s assessment didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
“Creating-wise, we were outstanding against a deep block but we were not clinical enough. How can you have such clear-cut chances and not finish them off? It’s difficult to explain. We make one mistake, they score. They make 10 mistakes, we don’t score,” he said.
But the reality is that creation was a problem yet again. Liverpool had 72 per cent of the possession but there was little penetration. It’s not domination when you are being kept at arm’s length. There were only three real chances carved out in the space of 95 minutes: Firmino in the first half and then Mane and Salah after the break.
The service from midfield wasn’t good enough but neither was the movement ahead of them. It was a painful contrast to the manner in which first Richarlison and then Dominic Calvert-Lewin stretched the hosts’ makeshift backline.
Fatigue has to be a factor with Firmino, who turns 30 in October. He hasn’t missed a Premier League or Champions League game all season. He’s played 279 games for Liverpool across five and half years, with international commitments on top. That’s a lot of miles on the clock.
Part of the problem is that resting him just hasn’t been possible without Jota because of the dearth of other attacking options. Rhian Brewster was sold to Sheffield United to help finance last summer’s incomings and Klopp sanctioned the loan of Takumi Minamino to Southampton in the winter transfer window.
It was telling that, despite Firmino’s struggles on Saturday, Divock Origi remained rooted to the bench until a contentious penalty decision had already put the contest out of reach.
The Belgium international will always be revered for his iconic moments but his erratic Liverpool career is petering out tamely. Since that balmy night in Madrid in June 2019, he has scored seven times in 58 appearances (20 starts). His only goal in the past seven months came against Lincoln City.
Origi has to be moved on this summer and Liverpool have to buy a striker. Yes, they’ve got Jota but he’s not a centre-forward. They need someone capable of running in behind and getting on the end of crosses. They need an injection of quality, pace and dynamism through the middle. They need a goalscorer. They also need the owners to show ambition and back the manager in the transfer market.
Klopp has already built one great Liverpool team but if more success is going to follow, he will need to start constructing a second one. One of the biggest challenges facing him will be deciding when the time is right to move on cherished names whose best days are behind them. Sentiment can’t be allowed to cloud judgment.
Roberto Firmino is an Anfield legend but his powers have waned. Whether it’s to replace him or just to give him a breather at times, Liverpool need to buy a new No 9.