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Firmino Is Picture Perfect Again as Liverpool’s Away-Day Goal Monster

Firmino Is Picture Perfect Again as Liverpool’s Away-Day Goal Monster

Tuesday, 14 January, 2020 - 06:15
Roberto Firmino was imperious against Tottenham as Liverpool continued their seemingly unstoppable march under Jürgen Klopp. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
London - Barney Ronay

There was a funny moment at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as the TV camera team ran on to get that full-time shot, the one that frames the gurgling post-match summary. On this occasion they ran to Roberto Firmino, scorer of the game’s only goal, and an ideal subject for that defining portrait: shirt off, guns out, applauding the away support in faux-pious isolation.


Except, they couldn’t get it. Firmino kept disappearing, submerged by other bodies, hugging Xherdan Shaqiri, dodging the solo shot with the studied expertise of Jason Bourne evading a sniper on a crowded commuter platform. Doggedly the woman in brown boots and the man in the bobble hat lurked and lingered, shoulders slumping. Did we get that, Jez? Did we get the shot?


They did, of course – because the correct Firmino shot is the crowd shot, the shot buried in the heart of his team. As Firmino left the pitch a wiry figure in a black coat did finally get him on his own for a slightly lascivious full-body hug. José Mourinho – for it was he – knows the value of a big Firmino game. This was one. And on that two‑hander the game had turned.


Two things happened here. Tottenham spent the first half playing against Liverpool’s reputation, playing the ghost Liverpool, the one that comes in swinging that great gleaming red scythe, the one mothers tell their infant centre-halves about to scare them before bedtime.


Mourinho set up his team with five defenders at the start, including a revolutionary double right-back bolt. At times Serge Aurier has been handed his own crazy-horse role under Mourinho, with the freedom to gallop forward, to leap and rear up on his hind legs, while the left side tucks in. Here he was backed up by an orthodox right-back in the shape of the 20-year-old debutant Japhet Tanganga.


In a way Liverpool were a kind of release, a team so good they gave Mourinho the luxury of being unapologetically himself, of attacking only on the break, of bringing an expert note of death to the occasion.


It worked, right up until the moment it didn’t work, which was two minutes in when Tanganga was forced into a wonderfully alert clearance off the line. It was Firmino’s shot that was blocked, the chance made by a brilliant chop-turn with his heel, rolling the ball inside so smartly that Christian Eriksen seemed to wander towards the corner flag, struck suddenly by its luminous beauty. This was the second thing that happened, as Firmino produced one of those warrior-like away performances, transforming that Spurs caution into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The only goal arrived after 37 minutes, the culmination of a period where the waves of attack had forced Tottenham’s defence so far back they were almost tripping over the advert hoardings. Jordan Henderson bundled the ball forward. Firmino took it and spun left again, this time past Spurs’ tyro right-back, and shot to the far corner.


Firmino is a relentless presence on days such as these, a monster of the decisive away goal. This was his ninth goal this season, all of them away from Anfield. Five have been winners, a big-game, daddy-goal, title-driving level of efficiency.


It is so easy to pick at the things Firmino is not. With 72 minutes gone Andy Robertson made an extraordinary run and somehow nodded a deep diagonal pass back across goal. Firmino wasn’t there, he was instead 30 yards away thinking about some other battle, and shrugging apologetically as the ball trickled away.


He has never been a poacher. There was some talk last summer that Liverpool might even buy a new star centre-forward, someone to pump up those numbers. But Firmino’s lack of starriness disguises the fact he is the perfect part in this team, with the ability to pressor, to hold possession, to drop deep and sweep the ball either way, a player who has proved almost as revolutionary to the frontline in this Liverpool era as Virgil van Dijk has to the back.


What is he anyway? Firmino has been described as a false 9, but this doesn’t really do justice to it. If you want to go down the numberwang route he’s a bit of everything: nine, 10, 8, 11, even 4; a post-modern kind of striker for a disruptive age. Twice here he produced that swooping Capoeira‑style trap, pulling a long pass out of the air. Nobody else does this. It’s his move, the Firmino Sweep, his own cross-cultural take on the long-ball flick-on.


Spurs did rouse themselves in the second half, and might easily have equalised. It was salutary to see Mourinho out leaping on his touchline, urging his team forward, thrilling to their attacks, overcompensating just a little.


Somehow it never quite felt enough. This was never quite the full-on, front foot Liverpool experience, those Anfield days where Firmino makes the more notable scoring parts of this team work, to the extent their goal totals should probably have an RF-shaped asterisk. It didn’t matter much. On days such as these he has the away‑day spirit to decide a game on his own account.


The Guardian Sport


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