Roberto Firmino is Liverpool’s leading player for goals and assists on a pro-rata basis this season.
If you had to build the most defensively sound Liverpool team for the rest of the campaign, who would be in your starting XI? The way the team has played in 2022/23, it would be hard to make a strong case for anybody.
One vaguely scientific method of selection would be to look at how many goals have been conceded with each player on the pitch in the Premier League. Per FBRef, Fabio Carvalho has the best record, with Liverpool allowing an average of 0.81 goals per 90 minutes when he has played.
The fact his figure would’ve been joint-20th best last season shows just how far the Reds’ defence has fallen. In any case, Carvalho has only played 337 minutes so isn’t the best example.
If we look at players with the equivalent of at least 10 full matches this term, we find Joe Gomez top (with 0.98 goals per 90 conceded), ahead of Harvey Elliott (1.11) and Fabinho (1.22). The identity of some of these front runners certainly undermines the value of this system.
However, fourth on the list is Roberto Firmino (at 1.26) and he also has the second-best expected goals against per 90 average in this quartet, behind his Brazilian colleague. The former Hoffenheim man hasn’t played since the World Cup break and has certainly been missed.
He has the joint-best pro-rata goal scoring record at the club this season, alongside Mohamed Salah, and has the edge if penalties are excluded (not that Liverpool get many of them). The number nine also has the third best shots on target per 90 rate in the top flight, behind only Darwin Nunez and Erling Haaland. Jurgen Klopp’s most recent update on Firmino’s fitness was non-specific and brief – “Bobby’s getting closer obviously, very good” – but his imminent return is welcome.
It will be interesting to see how he fits into the side for what could be the final few months of a glittering career with the club. The way in which Klopp has deployed new signing Cody Gakpo in recent weeks suggests the Dutchman may be the long-term replacement for Firmino. The 31-year-old is the Reds’ joint-second top scoring substitute of all time (per LFCHistory) and may have to be content with a spot on the bench.
But there’s a case he should be in the team for what he offers defensively as much as going forward, and not just because of Liverpool’s better goals against record when he has played. With the Reds employing a mid-block rather than a high press in recent weeks, Firmino’s role in defending from the front would be different than it has been in the past. With his interception rate back at the level it was in 2017/18 having dipped for four seasons in between, the Brazilian’s powers of anticipation can be well utilised in deeper areas though.
Less obvious but just as important is his presence when defending set-piece situations. This is one of many areas in which the Reds have struggled in 2023. While only three clubs in the Premier League have conceded fewer goals from set plays this season, Liverpool have allowed six in their 10 matches since domestic football resumed in December. This includes the strikes which knocked them out of both cup competitions, as well as efforts in the league defeats to Brentford, Brighton and Wolves.
Yet they have only conceded two such goals in the 1,376 minutes Firmino has played this season: one which proved to be the winner for Nottingham Forest, the second an equaliser for Southampton after he himself had scored from a set-piece. This could easily be coincidental, though it should be noted the Reds only allowed one dead-ball goal in the league with Firmino on the pitch last season.
It was scored at the Kop end by Kai Havertz, with his headed chance valued at just 0.02 expected goals by Understat. He may not even have been trying to score – it was more of a flick in the general direction of the goal – but if he did it was an unlikely finish and not one the Reds would face too often.
Liverpool are struggling for goals and Firmino has the experience and neat passing ability in the final third to help. His defensive contributions may prove even more valuable, though.