By Sachin Nakrani
I’ve never been accused of racism but I imagine it’s quite distracting. Going into work each day, wondering if your colleagues suddenly think less of you and then coming home and seeing the distress the entire episode is causing your family and friends. Then, of course, there’s the punishment that could follow if you’re found guilty, which would be particularly hard to take if you’re actually innocent.
Yes, I imagine it would be quite distracting, and in such circumstances I’m not sure I’d be able to perform at my best. But then again, I’m not Roberto Firmino.
It took 47 days but last week Firmino was finally cleared of racially abusing Mason Holgate during Liverpool’s 2-1 victory over Everton in January. The process was an exhaustive one and while the accused was ultimately exonerated it must have been a trying time for him. Yet ultimately it is only those who know Firmino privately that would have been aware of this because, in public, he seemed unfazed by it all. Seven matches were played by Firmino between the Everton game and the FA clearing his name and in that time the 26-year-old scored five times and played with unerring consistency. If Firmino’s mind was clouded, his emotions shredded, his fears and anxieties heightened, he did not show it.
That really is remarkable and underlines what a special talent the Brazilian is – not just technically gifted but mentally strong, which was again on show during Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over West Ham on Saturday when Firmino yet again shone and scored his 13th league goal of the season. It can also be argued that following Philippe Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona he is Liverpool’s most important player and, as such, that the club needs to put plans in place right now for how they are going to cope when he too walks out the door.
Sorry for being the man who shits on your chips but if there’s one thing Liverpool supporters must now accept it’s that ours is no longer a destination club for the very best players, and especially those of south American origin. Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Coutinho – all have forced a move to Barcelona once the Catalans came calling and if they decide they want Firmino too, he’ll do the same.
That would also be the case if Real Madrid made a bid for Firmino and in such circumstances the best thing Liverpool could do is get the best price possible and move on. But as recent history has shown, while the club is good at the first part, they’re not great at the second. Alberto Aquilani, Christian Poulsen and Mario Balotelli – just some of the terrible players brought in as replacements for key performers in the past decade, and while Jurgen Klopp can be expected to do a better job of replacing Firmino given his track record in the transfer market, such is the forward’s unique importance to the team that without the right planning, the process could prove torturous.
Reds of a certain age may vehemently disagree but Liverpool has never previously had a player like Roberto Firmino Barbosa de Oliveira. A No9 who isn’t a No9, the focal point of a free-scoring attack that not only contributes with goals and assists – 22 and 12 in all competitions respectively – but also sets the tone for the team’s overall approach; pressing from the front, linking play, dragging defenders away in order to create space for his team-mates, and performing with a level of consistency and intensity that saw Klopp go against his principal of not singling out players for praise. Speaking ahead of the 4-3 victory over Manchester City last month, the manager said: “Mo Salah, world class, but not every day. Sadio Mane, world class, but not every day. Roberto Firmino, world class, pretty much every day.” It was a telling remark in regards to just how highly Klopp regards Firmino, individually and as part of the collective.
Such is Firmino’s importance to the way this Liverpool team functions, one that at the weekend smashed past the 100-goal barrier for the season, that his departure would be akin to taking the engine out of a car that has been specifically designed for that car. Recent history also shows that a Jurgen Klopp team can suffer greatly when it loses a fundamental attacking component.
Borussia Dortmund went from back-to-back Bundesliga champions and Champions League finalists to genuine relegation candidates following Robert Lewandowski’s move to Bayern Munich in 2014, and while other factors contributed to that demise, the Polish striker’s switch was arguably the most telling. In Bring The Noise, his acclaimed book on Jurgen Klopp, journalist Raphael Honigstein describes Lewandowki’s departure from Dortmund as “something akin to the trigger of a recession” because of his ability to “combine hard work with efficiency in front of goal”. Remind you of anyone?
Klopp, who by then was about to start his seventh season in charge of Dortmund, reacted to the loss of Lewandowski by signing Ciro Immobile from Torino. The Italian was (and remains) a talented forward but he was not a like-for-like replacement and struggled badly at the Westfalenstadion, contributing to what Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund’s long-standing chief executive, described as a “shit season”. It would also be Klopp’s last at the club with the toil involved in keeping Dortmund in Germany’s top-flight proving too much.
While it is highly unlikely Firmino’s departure from Liverpool would lead to a fight against relegation, it would undoubtedly cause harm. Indeed it has become striking just how differently the team operates when the Brazilian is not involved and to a large extent explains why both Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge are currently not at Anfield. Both are decent forwards but both look completely ill-suited and ill-prepared when tasked with filling in for Bobby.
So what does Klopp need to do? An obvious step would be to immediately begin the process of grooming Firmino’s successor. During his time as a coach, at Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool, the manager has shown an almost unparalleled ability to develop and improve players and so it is not beyond the realms of possibility to think he could take a young player and, with time, turn him into Firmino 2.0. A central, frontline attacker who leads the press, runs the channels, links play and contributes with goals and assists. They may never be good as the original, but they may not be far off and, crucially, would allow Liverpool to continue operating in the same style and with the same approach
Could Dominic Solanke be the man for the job? The 20-year-old has yet to make a telling impact since joining from Chelsea but he is rich in potential. Then there is Danny Ings – more fully-formed than Solanke and at 25 still young enough to develop and improve. Ben Woodburn, Ryan Kent and Harry Wilson are other contenders, while there are sure to be other options abroad. And anyone mocking the idea of Klopp being able to mould a new Firmino should remember he is the man who essentially formed the current Firmino – converting the player into the focal point of a fluid front line not longer after succeeding Brendan Rodgers as manager in 2015 and continuing to work with him to the point where the 26-year-old has established himself as one of the best forwards in Europe.
Grooming someone to be Firmino’s long-term replacement will not be easy and it can be argued Klopp frankly doesn’t have the time to undergo such a project while also carrying out his day job. Given the unique type of forward the Brazilian has become it could also be suggested that the likes of Barcelona and Real won’t come in for him anyway.
Equally, however, it has to be accepted that a player who during his time at Hoffenheim was described by one German newspaper as a “master of moving around without anyone noticing” is being noticed by the wider football world. As such, Liverpool need to plan according. Their Firmino-less future starts now.
By Sachin Nakrani
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