The shelf life for soccer players might just be the shortest around. Baseball would like to get there, but in the world of football it still basically works that once you hit 30, they start counting down the clock on you. So on one hand, it seems Roberto Firmino has been playing for Liverpool forever. In another, on the stat sheet, he was really only a main cog in the lineup for six seasons, and at the club for eight total, which is barely a flash. How could it only have been both?
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Firmino arrived in Liverpool with the club basically a mess. The Brendan Rodgers era was disintegrating with alarming speed, Steven Gerrard had left, and it felt like that brief window of the spring of 2014 when they actually could have, and should have, won the league, was closed forever. It was a spec on the horizon, if that. Much like everything else at the end of Rodgers’s reign, he either had no idea how to use Firmino or too many ideas on how to use him. Right before Rodgers was shitcanned we even saw Bobby as a right wing-back. What exactly was going on here?
The game today doesn’t really have space for the traditional No. 10 anymore, and certainly not in the Vin Diesel vehicle pace of the Premier League. Even central strikers aren’t what central strikers used to be, required to run and press and open up channels for others. Jurgen Klopp showed up, walking out of his lab of weirdness, and said, “I’m going to have Firmino be both a No. 10 and No. 9 at the same time!” and then cackled that maniacal Klopp laugh that we find so endearing and is probably the most grating sound in the world to everyone else.
Bobby just as off-center as Jurgen Klopp
Luckily for Klopp, and luckily for us, Bobby was just as off-center as his manager and embraced the role fully. Liverpool fans will remember it all starting with a match at Man City, with Klopp screaming at Firmino to get farther forward and to lead the line more than he was, and then he scored his first Liverpool goal a few minutes later. It felt like something was born then.
So much of Klopp’s and Liverpool’s system was dependent on the never-ending energy, ingenuity, and impishness of Firmino. He could run all day to trigger that furious press in the first couple of seasons. He was furious on the counterattack and smiled with joy in the immeasurable chaos that Liverpool were back then. When Klopp wanted more control with the ball as the team evolved, Firmino was no less comfortable dropping off the front line into that pocket between the two advanced midfielders and between the defensive lines. It seemed most matches he had this forcefield around him when he had the ball, just ghosting past would-be tacklers that just seemed to ricochet off the air around him before he slipped in Salah or Mane or finished himself.
And yet, while doing all of that he still found more than enough time to also be in the box to finish. 81 times in fact.
And even with his laundry list of duties laid out by Klopp, Firmino still found time to just make shit up. Like this:
And when he was truly feeling spicy, there were the no-look goals into an open net or the devilish finishes just because he felt like it.
A false 9 with all the toppings
It would probably be too much to say that Firmino invented the false 9 role, because teams had used it before, and he wasn’t just a false 9. He was the false 9 with all the toppings. He certainly made it his own, while also never hiding how much he was getting his rocks off doing all these things that weren’t supposed to come with just one player. Perhaps no player held up such a sound structure while simultaneously being completely avant-garde as Firmino.
Every fan has their favorite goals from club legends. Most might pick his winner against PSG when he had injured his eye in training the day before and couldn’t really see out of it. Or maybe this Hammer of the Gods against Stoke. Perhaps this slalom against Arsenal.
Maybe the one that clinched the Club World Championship at the end of 2019. Mine came a couple of days after that. The two goals against Leicester weren’t that special in themselves. But Liverpool flew back from the Middle East for that Boxing Day clash, away to the team that was in second at the time, and quite simply rubbed Leicester’s ass in the moonshine for 90 minutes by the tune of a 4-0 scoreline to leave no doubts that the league title was finally coming back to Anfield. It was as thorough of a dismantling of a team as we’d seen, and leading the line for it was Bobby and that Vegas-gigawatt smile that he played with.
Bobby’s game just contained too much to be held together forever. You can’t run as much as he did and do all the other things too into your 30s. Luis Diaz’s arrival last season kind of pushed Bobby to the fringes, only exacerbated by the arrivals of Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo this season. Soccer doesn’t wait and doesn’t do sentimentality very well either.
Bobby played his last game at Anfield for Liverpool last Saturday, and scored, because of course. His career as a Red will end Sunday. A career full of mischief and energy and karate kick celebrations and well-timed tackles and passes no one should have ever tried or even seen and just an utter joy that probably won’t be replicated.
Man, how could it have only been six seasons, really? Like Firmino on the field, there was just so much packed into him it doesn’t seem like it could only have been six seasons, just like it couldn’t have all been in one player.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.