Roberto Firmino: Examining Paraguay Performance


Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino has been as hyped as any expensive new transfer for a talented and Brazilian attacking midfielder who has established himself in another top league would be expected. Obviously, high expectations come with the hype, and a player is met with immediate criticism if they fail to show up well for their national team in a competition prior to their first match with their new club.

It’s exactly what’s happening right now to Firmino after yesterday’s anonymous performance in Brazil’s loss on penalties to Paraguay, as he touched the ball less times than any starting outfield player for Brazil. Per, the former Bundesliga star’s 39 touches tied him with goalkeeper Jefferson for the lowest among the team’s starters, and it’s a stat worth keeping in mind when criticizing Firmino’s performance.

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As his defenders have been quick to point out, Firmino was played out of position against Paraguay, as Brazil were forced to utilize him in the “No. 9” role. I’d hesitate when saying “out of position”, though, because Firmino has the intelligence off the ball, the finishing chops, the ability to work in tight spaces, the link-up play, and the sneaky aerial ability required to be a productive “False 9”. The larger point that it wasn’t a natural fit for him (he’s a No. 10, of course) holds to a certain extent, but it isn’t the crux of the issue in this case.

According to Who Scored, Brazil produced just four key passes as a team in yesterday’s loss, and one of those key passes came from Firmino. This is important, because this, in combination with the statistic that Firmino had just 39 touches on the ball, tells us that he was a victim of a lack of service.

The common complaint with Firmino’s performance in Brazil’s Copa America exit is the fact that he was “anonymous”, and it’s a fair observation. But that’s all it is, really- an observation. You can’t completely dock a player for not having an impact on the game when they weren’t given the means to show their quality on a consistent basis, because nobody on Brazil was creating clear-cut chances, and the service to Firmino up top was glaringly subpar.

That said, it’s impossible to argue that Firmino played well, because he did have a below-average game in every facet. He completed just 60% of his total 30 pass attempts, and he was dispossessed three times. Now, it’s important to throw in some qualifiers here. Firstly, it’s a lot harder for somebody playing up top to have a high passing success rate, as strikers often have the lowest passing success rate on the team.

Firmino is an attacking midfielder, of course, but he played the most advanced role on the pitch for Brazil yesterday. Secondly, it’s hard to dribble around players when literally all of your touches come in a tight space, because, again, Brazil didn’t do a good job of setting the ball up for Firmino in threatening positions.

Whenever we evaluate players after a disappointing performance, it’s important to realize that we’re out there to evaluate traits, as we’re not necessarily always looking to see somebody dominate. Roberto Firmino is a player who is praised for his situational awareness, ability to maneuver in tight spaces, and creativity. And even though he didn’t make any sort of an impact for Brazil yesterday and had a poor game, the key thing is to watch and see if any of those traits manifested themselves.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find available clips of a player’s work off of the ball, because that would give us a better picture of how they performed. But there’s still plenty of information to be gained by looking at Firmino’s few important touches on the ball, and I think we can glean some valuable insight from some of these clips.

First of all, we’ll take a look at his most pronounced impact on the game, and that was, ironically enough, his decision to not touch the ball, instead cleverly feinting a touch (or perhaps moving his foot away to make sure he wouldn’t interfere with the low cross) in the box and allowing Robinho to execute a straight-forward finish to give Brazil an early lead.

It’s a brief example of situational awareness, and it’s a trait that can help him be worth the 29 million pounds that Liverpool bought him for from Hoffenheim. Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo are two of the best players in the world at understanding where their teammates are in the box and whether or not to take the shot on or let it pass (Ronaldo, of course, usually decides to shoot with Benzema generally choosing to allow a teammate to make the play).

This is valuable in both counter-attacking situations and in situations in which there is a crowded box with the chance of an unmarked teammate lurking in behind the player.

Let’s take another look at a brief glimpse of positivity from Firmino’s criticized performance against Paraguay, and we’ll direct our attention to his ability to operate under constricted conditions.

Ignoring the fact that the ball seems to go out of play here, Firmino does a nice job of maintaining positions by showing off some physicality and creativity. He had some of the quickest feet in the Bundesliga last season, and not only was he third in the league in dribbles won per game, but he was also tenth in key passes per game. Part of this is due to Firmino’s ability to keep defenders off-balance with his feet and feints, and he has the strength to shield defenders whilst briefly dazzling them.

The last play I’ll highlight isn’t exactly impressive, but we’re looking for bright spots here. This one showcases his movement on a one-two, and we get a glimpse of Firmino’s ability to find space and use his body to leverage himself into a better position to receive a return pass.

Had the return pass been placed more centrally, then this could have led to a goal-scoring chance for Firmino, and that goes along with my assertion that Brazil did a poor job of creating clear chances against Paraguay. In any case, Firmino does a great job of setting up the defender here with a quick fake to the right before wheeling inside, using his body to cut underneath the defender, leaving himself open for a threatening pass.

The return pass on this one-two is solid enough and puts Firmino in a position where he can cross it back inside, but perhaps the passer would have been better-served to follow the clear inward loop of Firmino’s run. You can see that Firmino expected the pass to be more inside, because he has to turn his body (check his knees) back to the right before firing off a cross that was never going to amount to anything (too many defenders). Firmino is a very fluid athlete, and it’s clear when you look at how smooth he was able to cut on that run.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to praise him for that last play, but these three plays highlighted shine as glimmers of hope in what was an unimpressive performance. But the criticisms are all overreactions at this point, and they fail to examine the bright side of things that the traits show. Firmino was easily one of the Bundesliga’s best players last season, and while it’s easier to shine for Hoffenheim than Brazil or Liverpool, it is awfully hard to shine when receiving poor service in a slightly unnatural position.

Next: Is Auba The Answer For This EPL Side?

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