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Roberto Firmino Is Shining Brighter Than His Teeth

There are many good Pool Boys, but there is only one Roberto Firmino. Liverpool’s No. 9 has long been the team’s attacking linchpin, the most versatile and hard-working member of the vaunted trio that has blitzed England and Europe ever since Mohamed Salah joined the crew in the summer of 2017.

Though Salah and Sadio Mané get more of the goals and accolades, Firmino is the piece that makes the whole enterprise work. Luckily, for fans of a player who can be described as a striker or a false nine or a whirlwind depending on the day, he’s been showing recently why he might be the team’s most indispensable force of nature.

Let’s start with the most recent example: On Saturday, after a stale and scoreless first half of a home match against Southampton, Firmino flipped a switch and turned what had been a tight affair into a farce. Those second 45 minutes were pretty much the platonic ideal of a Firmino game, as the Brazilian racked up three assists in what wound up being a 4–0 win. It wasn’t so much the assists by themselves that showed how great and important Firmino is to this team, but rather how those assists came to be: a mix of technical skill and pure unselfishness, with a dash of always being in the right place at the right time.

The first assist was for Liverpool’s best goal on the day. After Andy Robertson did fantastically well to keep a long ball in the field of play, Firmino pulled off a ridiculous backheel to an open Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who then did even better to slot home with a long and low shot:

For his second, Firmino took the ball wide in the box, drew two defenders to him, then split those same two defenders with a perfect cut-back pass that found a wide open Jordan Henderson:

Note that Henderson immediately picked out Firmino to celebrate; while the English midfielder’s shot was great in its own right, he rightfully made sure to credit The Man Called Bobby for the inventiveness and precision that made the goal possible. Similarly, Salah’s goal in stoppage time owed much of its existence to Firmino, who corralled a Salah through ball before cutting a nearly blind pass across directly into the path of his attack partner:

Just like that, Firmino had cleared the way for yet another Liverpool win, making it now 24 wins from 25 Premier League matches. The victory wasn’t all down to Firmino, but it never is. That’s the point. He’s not the type to take over games and shoot Liverpool into comfortable victories. Oftentimes his most crucial contributions don’t even show up on the stat sheet.

But his work linking up Liverpool’s hard-working midfield with its star-studded attack always shows up if you pay attention. And that’s before you even look at his defensive work. Manager Jürgen Klopp’s playing style of controlled chaos depends on intense pressing from every one of the team’s lines, and Firmino is the most important pressure agent amongst the forwards. He has an uncanny sense of where to be at all times, when to close down a defender to force a back-pass, when to stick out a leg to snatch away a ball and spark one of those lethal counters Liverpool are infamous for. Firmino’s selfless drive to carry out the small, thankless tasks like harrying back-passes is what frees up Salah and Mané to conserve their energy when Liverpool don’t have the ball, so that when Firmino or a teammate does win back possession, those two speed demons will be ready to attack.

And Firmino can score himself, too! Since November 22, Firmino has knocked in a whopping four game-winners, all late and all crucial. He nabbed one on that date against Crystal Palace, before notching two in the Club World Cup: one to send the Reds to the final, and then one there to win the whole thing. And then on January 23, Firmino scored an unstoppable banger to defeat Wolves in what has been Liverpool’s toughest test of the season:

Firmino might not get the credit or the attention that his fellow goalscorers do, but he is the one player in that front three for which there is truly no replacement on the roster. What he brings to the table—playmaking, pressing, and goals when they’re most needed—is a combination worth its weight in gold. And as Liverpool continue to storm toward what would be the club’s first-ever Premier League title and first top division trophy since 1990, it’s that combination that should help secure the remaining points they need to finally say, “This is our year.”