Leading up to Liverpool’s recent fixture against Arsenal, the TV broadcaster showed highlights from the Reds’ 5-1 trashing of the same opposition at Anfield towards the end of 2018. Much like this season, Roberto Firmino had not scored at home for more than eight months but delivered a virtuoso performance on the night and the only hattrick of his Liverpool career.
What struck me most was his behavior after tucking in a 65th minute penalty that secured his hattrick. While his teammates mobbed him, the Brazilian seemed to be profusely thanking Mohamed Salah for letting him take the spot-kick (the Egyptian had not been as generous with one in the first half). Instead of reveling in his achievement, he seemed to be grateful just to be given the opportunity and it typified the innate selflessness that characterizes the Brazilian’s performances in a red shirt.
He is the most important player in Klopp’s team and whatever his goal record might suggest, there is no doubt about it. The team’s system relies on the manipulation of space and there is no player in the squad who understands this better than Liverpool’s number nine. There is a specificity to that role at Anfield and in recent years, there has been no other player who interprets, and more pertinently, possesses the characteristics to fill in when the Brazilian is absent.
This piece could very easily become a platform for some Firmino love-in, but my focus will be on the player who possibly has the attributes to be his heir. Takumi Minamino’s arrival in January went under the radar and the Japanese player has not played enough minutes, especially in the Premier League, for a definitive opinion to be formed on him. He has made the starting eleven only once in the competition with Klopp preferring to play him in the FA Cup instead.
There were glimmers of talent on display in the fifth-round Cup loss to Chelsea but it has been the ninety-eight minutes afforded to the player after the restart that have been more instructive. In the absence of Mohamed Salah, he started the Merseyside derby on the right wing. He found the going tough, tending to drift into central positions which were already occupied by Firmino. He was hooked off at halftime and replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
It was in a brief cameo against Crystal Palace that he showed all the attributes that Firmino brings to the side. Dropping deeper to initiate pressing actions and collect the ball between the lines, he almost had the debut goal he so desperately craves. If a Salah cutback in the dying moments had been played more accurately, he had the tap-in his movement deserved.
After barely getting a looking-in after that, Klopp brought him on the hour mark against Arsenal. As the Reds tried to force that equalizer that would help keep their dreams of a 100-point season alive, Minamino ensured that Liverpool would not lose their attacking thrust in the manner Divock Origi’s introduction sometimes brings about. The goal never arrived but the Japanese bustled about with intent, asking for the ball in difficult areas while also making intelligent runs into the box.
His first goal will arrive sooner than later and freed from the weight of records; Klopp would do well to hand the player starts in the two remaining matches of the season. Firmino is indispensable but he also looks like a player in desperate need of a rest and not the sort that a global pandemic provided before the restart.
He will not be able to handle the workload that next season will bring and with Liverpool’s transfer activity likely to be minimal, Minamino is well placed to step up and take on the mantle of being his deputy and eventual heir.
The Japanese footballing system produces players well-schooled in the importance of the collective and the hard press. All reports from that country indicate that Minamino displayed a drive and aggression that set him apart from his peers even at an early age and a move to bigger leagues was but inevitable. RB Salzburg honed his skills further and Liverpool have received a player who has all the tools to succeed at the club.
His former coaches in Japan and Austria are convinced that he will and with more playing time under his belt, so will the Kop.