Last year ended on a high for Roberto Firmino. The man with the famous smile had every reason to grin.
As a Brazilian he is well aware of the importance his countrymen place on the Club World Cup. His goal ensured that Liverpool won it. And he did it against Brazilian opposition, Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo, who under Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus had travelled to the tournament as the greatest South American hope in years.
It was a brutally effective way of proving his own value to a Brazilian audience, many of whom had doubted his claims to be selected for the national team.
If Firmino has been under-estimated back home, there are two easy explanations.
One is that they have only recently been getting to know him. Firmino moved abroad very young. He never played for a glamorous club and never appeared in the first division. He was, then, a virtual unknown when he moved to Germany soon after his 19th birthday. And the club he joined – Hoffenheim – were flying under the radar in Brazil.
So when he was first called up to the national team in November 2014, the vast majority of Brazil’s footballing public knew next to nothing about him. He had no constituency back home; those who have played for the likes of Flamengo or Corinthians are well known and will have their national team claims boosted by the press. The same does not apply to someone who played second division football for Figueirense before moving to a traditionally small team in Germany.
Secondly, it seems clear that Firmino has not been used well since he made his way into the Brazil starting line-up.
His international career turns on the 2018 World Cup, where he was the reserve centre-forward. Brazil, of course, were beaten 2-1 by Belgium in an epic quarter-final. It was the first defeat suffered in a competitive match by coach Tite, and it had serious effects on his planning. He confessed that he lost sleep for months afterwards thinking about the game, replaying it in his mind. He drew two conclusions.
First, he decided that he had persevered too long with Gabriel Jesus at centre-forward. Indeed, the Manchester City striker has never again featured in that position for his country. Tite has subsequently used him in a wide attacking role. Up until that point Firmino had largely been a substitute. He came off the bench in four of Brazil’s World Cup games, and at that point had only started five of his 19 international games.
After the World Cup, though, Firmino was firmly installed as first choice. He started all but one of his next 17 games, the exception being a 2019 Copa America warm-up friendly. He was wearing the No.20 on his back, but the reality was that Roberto Firmino was Brazil’s No.9.
The other post-World Cup change made by Tite had to do with the full-backs. The coach concluded that his team had been too open against Belgium, especially down the left flank. Real Madrid’s rampaging left-back Marcelo has not featured since. Tite was using wide strikers, and concluded that he did not need his full-backs to scamper up and down the touchline in the mould of Cafu and Roberto Carlos. He did not need auxiliary wingers. Instead, he was looking for full-backs who could construct the play from deep, arrive up front as an element of surprise, but also hold their position as part of a back four. In short, as he openly said, he was looking for Manchester City-style full-backs, not Liverpool ones.
But this created an obvious problem for Firmino. He thrives in the system that Jurgen Klopp has built at Liverpool. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are full of thrust from the full-back positions. They often supply the attacking width. This allows Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to get close to Firmino and run beyond him. The Brazilian can operate in the middle of the front three, dropping to link the play, with options either side and in front of him. He is a facilitator, and not a traditional centre-forward.
But with Brazil he was asked to perform in a very different structure. There was no one in front of home to receive his little threaded passes. And when he dropped deep he wandered into the same space as Neymar or Phillippe Coutinho, operating in a playmaker role that Liverpool no longer use. It was never likely to work.
True, Brazil won last year’s Copa America. But they were not entirely convincing, held to goalless draws by Venezuela and Paraguay and not coming up against Uruguay or Colombia, the two opponents who seemed best equipped to give them a game. And then straight after the Copa, without home advantage, they went on a run of five games without a win, losing to Peru and Argentina. It was only in the last game, against South Korea, that the forward line clicked – and the more combative and physical Richarlison replaced Firmino up front for that 3-0 win.
But if he was not setting the world in fire, it was hardly Firmino’s fault. He was being asked to carry out a role for which he was not suited. Take off a yellow shirt and put on a red one, and in world-class company against world-class opposition Roberto Firmino was giving weekly presentations of his virtues. And if Brazilians doubted him, they found out to their cost in the final of the Club World Cup.