In Premier League, this season, there is a great variety of strikers with different game style and skills. Romelu Lukaku has the ability to displace the opponent defenders with his muscular physique, he takes advantage of the chances that his teammates create for him and creates his individual moments during the match on his own, too. Harry Kane is a real “killer” inside the box area and has a tremendous talent at the ball keeping when his team defends lower on the field. Alvaro Morata and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have also great scoring instincts and considered top-class strikers. In case of Roberto Firmino, he is reputed to be Center Forward, but there is no actual position on the field to describe the range of his skills and the support he provides both in offensive and defensive situations.
Firmino cannot be thought as considerable danger inside the box area, he does not have the shape or the height to contend for the aerial duels and he acts more like Second Striker or Attacking Midfielder. However, he has a strong football perception, he knows when he has to defend, how to press the opponent for reclaiming the ball possession and his quality of passing and finishing evoke to Premier League’s top-level players. So, there is a certain question that needs to be answered. Is Firmino one of the most underrated players ever played in Premier League?
Analysis: Criteria and Limitations
Although Firmino is thought to be a striker, his impact on the game sprawls in many meters outside of the opponent’s area. For this reason, an in-depth analysis will follow at his stats beyond his offensive contribution, so as to make understood how valuable the presence of “Bobby” is for his team and his teammates. For reaching to safe conclusions about the results of the research, there are several facts that need to be set in order and certain comparisons to be made:
• In the first part of the research, the offensive and defensive features of Firmino will be divided and compared to three different periods. The first period will start with his appearances in Hoffenheim. The second one with his first two seasons at Liverpool. The last one will measure his performance in the current (ongoing) season.
• In the second part of the research, his quality in the game style of his team will be examined, concerning the passing accuracy, the average number of passes per game and his habit to finish the clear chances from far, mid or close distance.
• In the third part of the research, the researcher will focus on his individual contribution on the offensive plan of his team, so as to extract from the analysis how important the role of the player is in the creation of scoring opportunities for his team.
At this point, it is essential to refer that for the purposes of the analysis, the season 2010-11, in which the player had just come from Brazil to Europe, will not be taken into account, because he counted only 11 appearances (5 in the starting lineup) and the sample will not be typical. What is more, the stats from the major competitions (Premier League, League Cup, FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League, Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal) will be analyzed.
Striker with Defensive Awareness
Before his departure to England, Firmino did not have any specific position on the field. In fact, he had been used in three different positions in four seasons. At his first full season for Hoffenheim, he played as Center Forward, at the second as Right Winger and at the third and fourth as Attacking Midfielder. A common trait in each one of those seasons was his high level of concentration in defense.
In the graph above, the defensive awareness of the player is imprinted through five different statistical categories. By observing the stats, it would not be wrong to advocate that Firmino behaves as a Midfielder during the matches. He comprises the first zone of press for the opponent ball holder, the first threat for the opponent team to lose the ball possession. In Hoffenheim, he showed significant improvement as the seasons were passing by, while his fighting spirit was identified. In all these categories, his individual progress was distinguished after the second season. Solid in aerial duels, frequent passing blocker, astonishing in tackles. Under no circumstances, in blocked passes and tackles was his performance dominating. The only imperfection was that he suffered many dribbles and committed too many fouls for a striker, due to his inexperience and unquenchable desire for pressing the opponent team.
By transfering to Liverpool, Firmino was frequently used as Attacking Midfielder and Second Striker under Brendan Rodgers. The arrival of Jürgen Klopp, in October 2015, signified the individual liberation of the player. Klopp detected his defensive skills and he placed him at the top of the formation as false “9”. Firmino gradually turned into the spearhead of Gegenpressing. The comparison between his stats in Hoffenheim and those at his first two seasons in “Anfield” confirm his amazing evolution defensively. He suffered -33.77% dribbles from his opponents, he was more careful when he was pressing the ball, by committing -39% fouls, and blocked the opponents’ passes +100% more than in Bundesliga.
In certain cases, his stats were reasonably lower in Premier League, as the level of intensity and the competitiveness of British football cannot be compared with Bundesliga. For example, he performed -26.5% in aerial duels and -35.15% in tackles per match. Especially in tackles, his performance had reduced to -19.3% in total attempts and -18% in success. Nonetheless, during the current season which is the best of his career so far, he is +28% more effective in aerial duels and +15% in successful tackles in comparison with his two previous seasons at Liverpool, by competing Midfielders such as Fernandinho (50.65% successful tackles), Matic (57.6%) or Pogba (55%). [read here our analysis for Pogba].
The 58.3% of Firmino in successful tackles, in more than 100 attempts, is by far the best percentage among the strikers of Premier League clubs this season.
Incontrovertible Offensive Threat
As it was referred, the Brazilian did not have a standard position on the field at his first seasons in Europe and that incident was inhibitory for his individual progress.The positions of Center Forward and Right Winger could not provide him the freedom he wanted in his game. That is why his individual breakthrough took place when he was moved to the Attacking Midfielder position in Hoffenheim. By having Modeste in front, Firmino acquired the freedom he desperately needed for showing aspects of his talent.
The ball started to pass more often from his feet and same went for responsibilities. During the first two seasons, there is no other noteworthy stat except for the successful dribbles per game. In the third season, his numbers are unpredictably increased. The 16 assists constitute his individual record. In the same way, his unsuccessful touches were reached 3.1 per game, which is normal considering his new upgraded role on the field. In his fourth season, the numbers remained at the same level (or became better) and he developed his defect with the unsuccessful touches (-25.8%).
His transfer to Liverpool cost 41.000.000€, but the excitement among the fans’ circles was poor. He was not thought dependable offensively and many legends of “Reds” were of the opinion that the amount of money spent for him was exaggerating.
In this graph, the offensive behavior of Firmino is illustrated. His acclimation to England was immediate, despite the fact that his stats encountered significant drop. Although, Firmino’s dribbling attempts and successful dribbles were excessively reduced to -49.8% and -50.35%, respectively, at his first two seasons, his success rate remained in high standards (59.85% from 60.5%), while his pass percentage improved by +5.5% (78.6%). His shots per game decreased only by -2% and his unsuccessful touches by -4.7%. Nevertheless, one of his major disadvantages was the physical game. In Premier League the rhythm of the games is relentless and the experienced players know exactly how to place their body for being in an advantageous position in each situation. That explains to the fullest his -45.3% in fouls suffered.
On the other hand, the Brazilian grabbed the chance to point his assets, in the first place. Except for the defensive skills, he tried to become more aggressive in creative parts of the game. His improvement in assists (+22%), key passes per season (+30% and +8.6% per game) and average passes per game (+5.5%) was unforeseeable and incredible, at the same time. His impact started to influence Liverpool’s performance, reaching the current season, in which his numbers have skyrocketed.
Until today, he has already reached 27 goals so far (+134.8%) and has tied his individual record in assists with 16 (+45.5%), compared to his two previous seasons. He attempts -22.95% tackles, but more successfully (+19%), while his aggressiveness on the offensive part of the game is more obvious than ever (+12.5% in shots per game). He may take less than one foul per match (0.65) but that derives from the agility of thinking as he aims not to keep the ball a lot on his feet, by passing more and dribbling less.
Reliable at Passing Game and Scoring Opportunities
After examining his passing game and the goals he has scored, the stats reveal how multidimensional the game style of Firmino is. The graph below presents the fluctuation of his stats, concerning his passing ability.
His passing percentage, which ranges from 72.2% to 79.4%, is quite elevated for a player placed at the last part of the field, where the ball possession is lost most of times. In 2017-18, Firmino has one of the worst pass percentage in his entire career, but he has also honed his ability to create clear chances for his teammates. His average passes per match were 37.2 as player of Hoffenheim and 39.25 as player of Liverpool. During this season, the average passes have decreased to 30.65 (-21.9%), yet his contribution to create scoring opportunities has increased up to 19%.
Particularly, 5.6% of his average passes per match are key passes. The same percentage was 4.8% the last two years (-15%) and 4.7%(-19%) when he was playing in Germany. Furthermore, 21.9% from his overall key passes have turned into assist. In Germany, the same percentage was 14.7%(-49%) and 15% (-46.1%) in two years in England.
|Shots Distance||Out of Box||Penalty Area||Six-Yard Box|
|Liverpool (2016, 2017)||36.45%||59.15%||4.4%|
The improvement of “Bobby” does not shine only through his passing performance, but also through his judgment when he moves with the ball. On the table above, the shots per game are divided based on the distance of the execution. The recent tendency of Firmino to execute more often from inside the box is appreciable. In Premier League, his rate on shots on target reaches the 45%. The 27 goals of this season might be thought illogical at first glance, but the fact that he executes more often than ever from the six-yard distance explains the reason of his scoring frequency.
Scoring Contribution: Hoffenheim vs Liverpool
It was above-mentioned that Firmino lacks abilities and moves that classic contemporary strikers naturally have. On the other side, his restriction during the match is always a problem, which the opponent head coaches try to figure out. It is indicative that Liverpool wins 66% of his matches, this season, in all competitions when Firmino is in the starting squad and only 14% when the Brazilian does not participate or participates as substitution in a match.
The scoring contribution of Firmino for Hoffenheim, in four seasons, was 46 goals and 36 assists, when the total goals of the German club was 246. That means that he contributed to the 33.3% of Hoffenheim’s goals, without playing as striker, regularly. In 2011-12, he scored or assisted 11 from 45 goals of his team (24.4%, 7 goals, 4 assists). In 2012-13, again 11 from 46 goals (23.9%, 7 goals, 4 assists). In 2013-14, the best season of his career in Germany, he scored or assisted 38 from 89 goals (42.7%, 22 goals, 16 assists). In 2014-15, his final season in Hoffenheim, he contributed to 22 from 66 goals of his team (33%, 10 goals, 12 assists).
The scoring contribution of Firmino for Liverpool is significantly less, comparing to that for Hoffenheim. However, it is normal to score more goals for a team that tries to prevent its relegation than for a legendary club which tries to re-establish its status on the British and European football stage. That explains his anticipated reduction to his scoring contribution for Liverpool, which is 50 goals and 38 assists (28.3%), when the total goals of “Reds” are 311, since his arrival. In the first two seasons, he contributed to 11 goals and 11 assists and 12 goals and 11 assists, correspondingly. An also notable stat is that he has succeeded double digits in both goals and assists at all his three seasons to England.
Firmino is a player that behaves as Midfielder, defends as Center Defender and executes as world-class Striker. The moves he makes of the field, in order to create space for his teammates, or the timing of his passes, in order to create a clear chance for his team, are priceless and visible only at his teammates’ stats. Mohamed Salah, the player-revelation of 2018, he may be placed on the right wing of the formation, but 83.7% of his goals come from Firmino’s assist or move for creating open space in the last part of the field. Salah takes advantage by cutting inside the opponent’s area and executes from the position of Center Forward. The same situation happens with Sadio Mané, too. The 83% of his goals are executed the position of Center Forward.
The FX-Ray Project depicted what the overall contribution of Roberto Firmino was for the clubs he played and how significant his role is. He is probably not included among the top strikers of his generation and, for sure, not included among the best strikers ever played in Premier League.
Notwithstanding, it is a precious tool for Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool. A player with standard features which serve the football that his club seeks to play. He presses the ball, he scores and assists a lot, he creates amplitude and open space and he knows exactly what to do, when he has to. Roberto Firmino is not just one of the most underrated players of Premier League. He is a football “genius”.
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Firmino, R. (2018). Roberto Firmino – Player Profile 17/18. [online] Transfermarkt.com. Available at: https://bit.ly/2HsSEni [Accessed 24 Apr. 2018].
Premierleague.com. (2018). Roberto Firmino Statistics | Premier League. [online] Available at: https://bit.ly/2r1jMiX [Accessed 25 Apr. 2018].
Stamopoulos, A. (2018). FX-Ray Project: Paul Pogba – Statathlon: Revolutionize the Sport. [online] Statathlon: Revolutionize the Sport. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Fh6D9H [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].