So this article is a look at all things Bobby, to try and capture what it is that makes him so good, why Liverpool fans like him so much, and how he’s stacking up this season, both against the rest of the top six strikers, but also against himself, in the past. So let’s dig right into the numbers.
Goals. Whilst Bobby Firmino has demonstrated beyond any doubt that goals are absolutely not the entirety of what he brings to the table, his end product is important because ultimately that’s what any striker is judged on. Even if Bobby’s end product isn’t all that he brings to the table, it’s still great to see he is very much bringing it to the table. In terms of goals, and goals and assists, Bobby is mixing it with the big boys.
So as this table shows, Bobby stacks up pretty well overall. He’s scoring more and assisting more than Morata, Lukaku and Lacazette this season, and with Jesus not playing regularly, only Kane and Aguero have had significantly better seasons than him in terms of end product. This was pretty much to be expected anyway, and many would have suggested Bobby would be comfortably bottom of this table at the start of the season, such was the clamour for Liverpool to sign someone like Lacazette in the summer.
But goals are just one element to Bobby’s game, and it’s his creativity that often stands him apart from other PL strikers. So let’s compare the numbers in terms of creativity too, looking at assists, expected assists and key passes.
In terms of this table, Bobby is right where you might expect him to be, very near the top. This table is ordered by expected assists, in which Bobby is right behind Aguero. The assists to expected assists ratio is a useful tool as it demonstrates when a player is lucky that they have a team-mate scoring lower xG chances, as opposed to genuinely creating good chances. In this graph, we can see that Firmino, Aguero and Lacazette all have similar assists to expected assists stats, whereas Lukaku, Morata and Jesus all are overperforming their xA in terms of actual assists, and this will feed into their end product being higher. Nevertheless, the key point is that creatively, only Aguero is a comparable creative striker amongst the top six, and he’s playing in Guardiola’s City.
BOBBY VS BOBBY
So I wanted to see how Bobby stacked up against previous seasons, in terms of goals, in terms of creativity and in terms of how his defensive rate has been. Quick disclaimer on this one that defensive stats are a bit rubbish, and before we even get into it it’s worth noting that Bobby has played in a variety of positions across these seasons, which is what makes the numbers interesting, primarily because they’re so similar.
Here we’re comparing goals per 90, goals and assists per 90, xG per 90, xA per 90, key passes, tackles and interceptions.
Okay, so the first addendum is that Understat, where I collected my xG data from, don’t have xG data back earlier than 2014-15, so I don’t have Bobby’s xG or xA for his best season at Hoffenheim.
What I found particularly notable was how Bobby’s xG and his creativity levels have barely differed over the years. In four seasons, his xG is always between 0.28 and 0.35, whilst his xA is between 0.23 and 0.28. However, despite that, his goal-scoring rate fluctuates quite a lot, as low as 0.22 in 2014-15 but as high as 0.55 this season. The worrying element of that is that it suggests we’ll see Bobby score fewer goals next season, as there’s no clear evidence he isn’t massively over-performing his xG, which he appears to be.
As I said at the start tackles and interceptions aren’t massively useful stats, but I wanted to use them anyway to illustrate how Bobby has always had a strong defensive work-rate over the years – with high numbers at Hoffenheim and also in his first season at Anfield.
So what’s interesting about those numbers is that it implies that Bobby’s natural game isn’t necessarily dictated by position. False nine, number ten or on the wing, he still manages to produce a similar output over the course of a whole season. And playing as the out and out striker for Liverpool hasn’t hugely increased his expected goals and hasn’t affected his expected assists, as the following data from the last four seasons indicates.
So even if Bobby appears to be playing significantly better this season, the underlying numbers suggest he is simply finishing his chances better – and that’s certainly something that should be celebrated while it lasts.
To judge Bobby Firmino simply on his numbers would be unfair, as it’s not just what he does, it’s how he does it. Bobby has a flair about him, a distinctive way of doing things that endears him to the Liverpool supporters. After all, one stat that has been doing the rounds is the number of no-look goals that Bobby has scored, which says it all about the way Bobby plays his game.
In many ways, his goal against Watford typified the way Bobby plays the game, with a delightful flick between his legs to slide the ball into the net. But he’s scored some other delightful goals this season, including a cheeky finish off the post against Huddersfield, the aforementioned no-look goals against Sevilla amongst others, a terrifically deft finish against West Brom and his utterly beautiful chip against Man City.
But of course, it isn’t just the goals. His passing is exquisite, his flicks and tricks are brilliant, and even the way Bobby celebrates is iconic. He’s a player who has a brilliant technique and his skill-set is brilliantly suited to chipped passes, nutmegs and side-foot finishes. In many ways, he’s your quintessentially Brazilian footballer.
But none of these things are what make Bobby, Bobby. When you ask Liverpool fans what makes Bobby Firmino special, they’ll say it’s that he embodies Klopp’s system. Many will say that he is the system and that he’s the trigger and leader of the press. Regardless of the accuracy of such platitudes, it very much is the case that Bobby is a key component in Klopp’s pressing philosophy.
Firmino is an incredibly hard-worker and has been throughout his career. It’s obvious watching him that he presses fantastically well, and he is always looking to make life difficult for defenders, on and off the ball. Whilst Liverpool is a team full of hard workers and excellent pressing players, Firmino is one of those who work the hardest and presses the most. And it’s certainly noticeable that Liverpool play better when Firmino is able to get involved in the game.
Whilst that doesn’t make Firmino unique amongst strikers, it’s his entire profile that makes him unique. He’s not just a false nine. He’s not just a creative striker. He’s not just someone who works hard. He’s all of those things and more. His ability to influence the game from deep, create space from others is crucial to what Liverpool do, but the fact that he does all of that whilst also harrying defenders to death is what makes him so special. It’s hard to overstate the levels of pressing that Firmino adds to this team, and the impact that that has on the side, and the fact that that is combined with a fluid, creative, dangerous presence makes him an absolute maelstrom at times to play against.
Firmino is not a player with vast amounts of weaknesses to his game. He’s much quicker than he has any right to be, he’s physically strong and great at finding space, especially in the box, meaning he scores lots of headers, as well as being a great passer, a skilful individual and a nightmare to play against.
If there are weaknesses to Firmino’s game, they’re to be found in the area that I highlighted right at the start. Goals. The problem with Bobby is twofold with regards to goals, even this season where he’s scored a lot more of them and more regularly.
The first problem is that he doesn’t get in enough positions to score enough goals as a top-level striker. I mentioned this above, but Bobby’s expected goals aren’t huge, just 8.94 in the Premier League, working out at 0.35 xG/90. Bobby’s massively outperforming his xG this season, but if he reverts to the mean, then he could end up scoring significantly fewer goals.
The second issue is that Firmino doesn’t score enough important goals, although this is certainly an issue that Bobby has looked to resolve this season. Even now, of Bobby’s 14 league goals, nine of those have come when Liverpool have already been leading the game.
If you were to think off the top of your head of moments when Bobby has scored a goal when the team has desperately needed one, there are only a few candidates. Stoke away last season is the obvious one, but that has been added to this season by goals against Man City and Arsenal especially and more recently against Southampton.
So scoring more goals, and scoring more clutch goals – and delivering more clutch performances – is an area of Bobby’s game that still needs work. However, as noted up front, this is an area of his game where he is improving this year. Moreover, the arrival of Mo Salah has worked wonders to take the pressure off Bobby this year, meaning that Bobby’s primary service to this side isn’t necessarily just sticking the ball in the back of the net.
Roberto Firmino is a really talented footballer. He has a little bit of everything about his game, and he’s consistently creative, presses like a madman, turns the ball over brilliantly, has a real fluidity to his game, and is starting to add more vital goals to his game. He’s not your typical number nine, but right now he’s mixing it up with the best number nines in the league and looking like he absolutely belongs there.