“All I can say is that he’s moving to England,” said agent Roger Wittmann regarding the immediate future of his client. In a summer during which the word has been bastardised to the nth degree, this was a genuinely ‘cryptic’ message. And not an Instagram account in sight.
It is notoriously difficult to find reason amongst some football supporters, particularly those who make social media their home. An ever-increasing tribal mentality deems that any acceptance of negative connotation towards their club is tantamount to gross disloyalty; any praising of a ‘hated’ rival becomes treason. Supporters’ true feelings are now muffled by the club scarves forced into mouths, but the excitement amongst Manchester United supporters when it was reported they had signed Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim must boost the anticipation of Liverpool fans.
Whether or not Firmino chose to join Liverpool over Manchester United, or whether the latter failed to make an official approach, is open to an interminable debate that I’m sure still rages on below the line. The undeniable conclusion is that Liverpool must be very pleased with their work.
“Liverpool was my choice because of its history and its team,” Firmino said in his first interview after arriving in England. “Also, [Philippe] Coutinho told me some great things about the club. I hope I can bring joy to the people playing for this club.” Coutinho may have set up 17 goals since joining Liverpool, but this might be his most valuable assist yet.
Liverpool’s summer has focused around two distinct sagas, and both justified that description. The long-winded departure of Raheem Sterling and arrival of Christian Benteke acted as a blanket over all Liverpool’s other transfer activity, as if there was only so much room in the pipe constantly churning out news to a desperate public.
Under this overbearing rigmarole, Liverpool’s other transfer activity struggled to be heard. Under this first heavy blanket, the arrivals of James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne generated markedly more column inches than any other arrivals. England’s first-choice right-back and most divisive midfielder (or is that Michael Carrick?) moving to Liverpool was never going to fail to steal the back pages.
It seems quite bizarre, therefore, but it is undeniable: Liverpool’s third most expensive player in their history has somewhat drifted under the radar.
For that it what Firmino will become if his £7m add-ons be realised. A Google search for ‘Liverpool Sterling’ returns 40.8m results, whilst ‘Liverpool Benteke’ returns 7.28m. ‘Liverpool Firmino’ is lagging far behind on 2.19m results. It’s a crude measure, but you get the point.
In an age where worth and fame are interchangeable synonyms, such a situation may not at first seem complimentary to Firmino. Look further, however, and the positives are clear. There has been incessant debate regarding Benteke’s role in Liverpool’s style, but Brendan Rodgers has not been forced to field the same questions regarding his new Brazilian. That might be because he’s a natural fit – no questions are needed when the answers are self-explanatory.
Firmino is a skilful player, capable of dribbling past players, creating chances and scoring goals. As mentioned here, former Hoffeinheim manager Holger Stanislawski describes him as “unbelievably good tactically”, with Germany’s sports pages labelling him as a ‘clever, first stealer of balls in Hoffenheim’s pressing system’ and a player ‘who stays focused for the entire 90 minutes’. Add in his obvious versatility, and Rodgers would be forgiven for acting like a dog with several d*cks.
Born in Maceio, the same town as Real Madrid defender Pepe, Firmino joined Hoffenheim in December 2010 after helping Figueirense back to Brazil’s Serie A. Having established himself in the club’s first team at the age of just 19, Firmino was named Bundesliga’s Breakthrough Player of the Season in 2013/14. He then stepped up a further gear.
It is impossible to overstate Firmino’s importance to Hoffenheim. He was their second-highest league goalscorer last season, registered double the assist total of anyone else and created the most chances by a country mile. He also completed more than double the number of successful dribbles of any other player. Think Eden Hazard at Chelsea, and you have your meaningful (if flattering) comparison. Firmino was the outlet and the best option, the one every other player on the team looked towards for inspiration.
However, such statistics only form part of Firmino’s attributes. When asked of his qualities during his first interview in England, Liverpool’s new signing did not mention his goals, assists or dribbles.
“I’m a player who works hard and who’s constantly looking to support my teammates on the pitch,” Firmino said. “I’m a player with an attitude.” The negative connotation to that is to be lost in translation. Alongside his impressive attacking ability, Firmino also made more tackles than all but one other Hoffenheim player last season, and committed more fouls too.
It’s an assessment corroborated by Hoffenheim director Ernst Tanner, who recalls being impressed by Firmino’s attitude when first scouting him. “The coach was nagging him the whole time, but he just carried on,” Tanner said. “Anyone else would have gone crazy. He had ability, but it was his mentality that set him apart, and I said to myself, ‘That’s what will help him in Germany.'” It’s unlikely to hold him back in England either.
If asked to list the stereotypical characteristics of each nationality and position, tenacity and determination would not rank high for a Brazilian winger. When thinking of that ilk one conjures up images of flair and skill, of Garrincha, Rivelino, Jairzinho and Socrates. This is not style over substance, for that would be grossly unfair, but the two words most definitely should appear in that order.
But that was yesterday. Modern football demands substance as a necessity, not an option or afterthought. The list of unsuccessful Brazilians in England outweighs the triumphs, but most of those who have lasted the course (Gilberto Silva, Philippe Coutinho, Juninho, Willian) have shown a desire to fight for the cause. That’s not the little Englander sentimentality demanding ‘pashun’, merely a reflection of the reality.
Firmino is not a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed youngster entering into English football’s vast unknown. He has experienced a similar culture (footballing and otherwise) and climate to England in Germany’s Bundesliga.
“Without a doubt, German football, where I’ve played for nearly five years, is very similar – maybe just a little less tough than English football,” Firmino said upon joining Liverpool. The suspicion is that he can handle himself. On the evidence of Hazard, he might have to.
“I’m confident I’ll be just fine here,” was the Brazilian’s simple message to those who questioned his ability to thrive, and it’s hard to doubt that self-assurance.
Roberto Firmino is far from just another Brazilian who will grow discontent in England’s winter, with another skill-set obviously ill-suited to the Premier League. Don’t misjudge the cheeky, boyish grin; there is plenty of steel to complement the silk.