It’s summer 2015, and Jurgen Klopp just can’t believe what Liverpool is doing.
On a sabbatical in his German homeland after calling time on a seven-year job in charge at Borussia Dortmund, Klopp caught a glimpse of a press article.
In England, the Reds had signed with Roberto Firmino of Hoffenheim in an agreement that could cost them up to £ 29 million.
“He was a player I thought was one of the best in the Bundesliga,” said Klopp. “So when I saw Liverpool signed it, I thought” How could Liverpool do that? “.
“They weren’t in their best moment 100% and other clubs would have spent more on him. So I immediately thought “What a good transfer for them”.
“I thought the clubs would have paid a lot more for him. From his first day (at Hoffenheim), everyone could see that he would be a very, very good player, and when Liverpool took him, I thought they had made a good choice. “
Having struggled with recruiting the previous year following the departure of Luis Suarez, Liverpool had gone into the extra yard to make sure Firmino signed on the dotted line.
With Firmino tempted by the prospect of joining his compatriot Philippe Coutinho at Anfield, the general manager of the Reds, Ian Ayre, no doubt aware of the previous failures to conclude potential transfers, had fled to Santiago, where Brazil was preparing for a Copa America quarterfinals against Paraguay to get things done.
Ayre returned from Chile with a sorted agreement and personal conditions agreed with Firmino for a five-year contract. But rather than a reason to rejoice, behind the scenes, the Brazilian had involuntarily found himself at the center of a long power struggle between manager Brendan Rodgers and the club’s transfer committee.
Rodgers, unhappy with having been persuaded to sign Mario Balotelli the previous year against his better judgment, agreed to the signing of Firmino on condition that Christian Benteke, his favorite big-money target, be bought later.
Benteke arrived for £ 32.5 million a fortnight later, claiming that Firmino was only briefly the second most expensive signature in Liverpool, with the Belgian taking the number nine jersey. Firmino took number 11 from the departure of Osama Assaidi.
“He’s a first class player,” said Rodgers. “He has all the traits and the profile of what we would like as a player – he works very, very hard, he is a talented player and someone who we think can score goals for the team.
“Of course, there is no pressure. It just takes a little while to adjust. “
From the start, however, it was clear that Rodgers didn’t really know how to best use Firmino while looking to use Benteke as the target man.
After two brief substitute appearances, the Brazilian started four successive Premier League games on the right flank – none of which were won – and was injured in the back when Rodgers was dropped hours after a 1-1 draw in Everton.
Enter Klopp. And if Firmino had been a “good transfer” earlier, it was about to become one.
“It was a short period (under Rodgers) but I considered him a great manager even though I didn’t have a lot of playing time under him,” said Firmino.
“When the results do not show up, it is imperative to change managers.
“I think Klopp has a typical German mentality. I like his German methods, he focuses and concentrates on what he wants. I think he will help us. It brings good vibrations. ”
Klopp was also encouraged. “I didn’t know him as a person before I came here, but I knew him and I liked him as a player and he’s still not 100% where he can go – not even close yet”, did he declare. “We talked at the start and you can see from his face that he is looking forward to working together. There is a lot to come and it is a good situation for the club. “
The first task was to find the best position for Firmino. A trip to Chelsea was on the horizon and the new Liverpool boss was asked what he could do with the enigmatic striker.
“The last time with Brazil, he played nine,” said Klopp. “Usually, he plays in the attacking midfield or second scorer or comes from the wing, but he can play in the center. “
Indeed, Firmino was the central striker of Stamford Bridge and Chelsea could not cope with his movement. He gave a decisive pass to Philippe Coutinho before Benteke’s bench managed to seal a 3-1 victory.
It was the same story at Etihad a few weeks later – Firmino with his first goal at Liverpool and two other assists – when Manchester City was beaten 4-1, but releases in the role were rare with Benteke in the lead of the attack.
Things have changed after a dismal 2-0 loss to West Ham United in January 2016 where Firmino had played an attacking midfield behind Benteke. In the next Premier League home game against Arsenal, the Brazilian was back as new and scored twice before Benteke, again pitched in the second period, tying a late equalizer for Joe Allen in a draw 3 -3.
Firmino scored three more goals and provided two assists in his next four starts in position before Daniel Sturridge came back and Divock Origi’s form saw him step back from being the attacking spearhead, playing in the new role only once again this campaign.
Indeed, in the last six Europa League matches this season, Firmino – who scored in front of the Kop in the last 16 win against Manchester United – played in five different positions, his versatility a blessing for the team but a slight curse on his tent to show his true worth.
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While the Basel final was a low point – the ineffective Brazilian, seeing a penalty postponed after a handball from Daniel Carrico of Seville and replaced halfway through the second half as Liverpool stumbled towards a sad 3-1 setback – the semi-final home victory at Villarreal offered the perfect showcase for his talents.
Firmino forced an own goal from Bruno Soriano and then created the second for Sturridge. However, it was a talent that left Roberto Soldado tangled on the sideline for which the Brazilian is best known that night, the kind of daring and execution that helped convince the remaining skeptics in the grandstands.
At the end of his first campaign at Anfield, 11 goals and 11 assists in 49 appearances underscored why he became Liverpool’s most used player under Klopp.
“I don’t think it is possible for someone to get more credit, compliments, praise, whatever you mean when Roberto gets it from us,” said the Reds boss.
“You see it in training and think” what work ethic, what attitude “, and it also brings it to the field. He never rests. You have to remove it, you have to tell it “come on, stop, sit here, calm down”.
“Nice to have him around – better to have him than on the other team. Perhaps this is the best thing you can say about a football player. ”
What Firmino was not, however, was an attacker with explosive pace and force that could terrorize enemy defenses. Fortunately, Klopp had just the right man in mind – and the one he had slipped through his fingers once before.