Liverpool — Mohamed Salah has scored more goals, Sadio Mane may have more explosive pace, but Roberto Firmino is the glue that knits together a devastating Liverpool front three that is fast making the five-time European champions feared on the continent once more.
Liverpool go into Tuesday’s Champions League last 16 second leg at home to Porto with the job already done having inflicted the Portuguese giants’ worst home European defeat in a 5-0 rout three weeks ago.
All of Liverpool’s free-scoring forward trio were on target that night, as they have been for most of the season. Their combined tally stands at 68, with Firmino’s 22 already by a distance his best return for a single campaign since joining from Hoffenheim in 2015.
However, the Brazilian is a lot more than a striker who just scores goals. His pass for Mane to seal a 2-0 win over Newcastle on Saturday was also his 13th assist of the season.
"Mo Salah, world class but not every day. Sadio Mane, world class but not every day. Roberto Firmino, world class pretty much every day," Liverpool’s manager, Jurgen Klopp, said recently.
It is not surprising to hear the highest of praise from his German coach as Firmino is the embodiment of what Klopp wants from his side. His tireless energy reserves press and pull defenders out of their comfort zone to make the spaces for Mane and Salah to shine, and yet he still maintains a calm head in front of goal himself.
"Yes, you’ve got Salah and Mane, but Firmino’s hold-up play and work off the ball makes him one of the best attacking players in the Premier League," former Liverpool captain Jamie Carragher said.
Klopp has cultivated Firmino into the player he is now. His technical ability as a former attacking midfielder allied to his athleticism has produced a fluidity in Liverpool’s front three.
"With Mane you have the pace and directness, with Firmino you have the touch and hold-up play and securing the ball, and then you have Salah, who gives you a bit of both and delivers goals. The blend is superb," Liverpool great Steven Gerrard said.
Even better could come for Firmino with Brazil coach Tite a fan of his flexibility. The 26-year-old has largely had to play a supporting role to Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and former Liverpool teammate Philippe Coutinho.
Firmino was practically unknown by fans in Brazil when he was first called into the national team in 2014, having left his native land for Hoffenheim when he was just 18, and still lacks some of the star power of his colleagues. However, Neymar and Jesus have to overcome fitness concerns to be ready for Russia and Tite has not ruled out changing his system to accommodate Firmino.
"He is a No10 who learned how to play a nine," said Tite of Firmino’s evolution under Klopp. "Brazil has lacked alternatives in previous World Cups and it cost us big. That’s why I want to use Coutinho in midfield, Willian as winger, and playing with Firmino and Jesus together. We must enter the competition with preparation for any situation."