Encouraged by dentist Robbie Hughes, Roberto Firmino aspired to turn his teeth into the world’s most well cared for ivory collection. After he had his incisors, molars and fangs enameled with an experimental nuclear target, all his teammates watched as he painstakingly brushed and polished piece by piece each day, before and after each practice session, with a paste that costs £250 a button. Asked about the rumours, Andrew Robertson confirmed that the legend was true. “When I’m in my corner and Bobby smiles in the opposite area, I see his teeth glistening,” the full-back confessed to a friend half-baffled, half-laughing, convinced, like everyone in the Liverpool dressing room, that was the attacker’s best investment his smile, the light of Anfield, a reflection of the most generous character to be found in the gritty universe of elite football and the hallmark of a false nine of the era.
Liverpool’s technical office admit the biggest injustice Jurgen Klopp has committed since arriving at the club in 2015 was to postpone Firmino simply because he was the friendliest attacker in the line-up. The one who never complained. Who always smiled when he saw himself among the substitutes and trained the next day with the same dedication as always. The one that made life less awkward for the coach when he wasn’t playing. Forced to rotate to give minutes to newcomers, Luis Díaz or Diogo Jota, the German didn’t dare to bench the haughty Salah, let alone the rude Mané.
The outcast wasn’t the least prolific. It was Firmino. The subject became the leitmotif of corporatist conversations in the dressing room. On his way to conquering the 2019 Champions League, goalscorer Salah earned €18m net per walk, the versatile Mané 12 and the others’ playmaker Firmino €6m. After the team carried the trophy around town, Mané met with representatives of the American owners to demand a pay rise. It didn’t achieve its purpose. But the phrase he left behind still reverberates around the club’s offices. “My thing is serious, but what you did to Roberto is a shame,” Mané said, according to a person connected to the talks.
There are salaries that react more to media dimensions than to sport. There are footballers from journalists and footballers from footballers. If there was one player at the best of Liverpool who was able to create growth inertia appreciated by his teammates, it was Firmino. The recognition, from Van Dijk to Henderson via Mané, was unanimous. Klopp surrendered to the evidence when it was too late. After selling Mané – who did not accept being Salah’s subordinate – and spending the entire budget on transfers to Darwin Núñez last summer, the manager was aware the team would melt in his hands if Firmino was not kept. The Brazilian from Alagoas turned 31 at the time and had the upper hand: his contract expires in June 2023. Despite the club offering him an extension until 2026, he hasn’t received any replies. Klopp appears sad and resigned to the inevitable. He believes that the player has decided to leave and prefers not to put pressure on him.
“That’s crucial for us,” Klopp said in October as Firmino’s intervention dismembered Rangers (1-7) in the Champions League. “He is the heart and soul of the team. The way we’ve played over the past few years was only possible because of Bobby. There is no doubt about its quality. We’ll see how the year goes, but it’s essential for us. People will write books about how he interpreted the false nine position.”
With Messi’s permission, Harry Kane, Benzema and Firmino were the best false nines of the last decade, the integral strikers who could sustain an entire constellation on their own. However, the Liverpool native surpasses them all in one facet. When he goes into midfield to help the Flyers, he’s the one who best interprets whether or not the game has the potential to get into the area. Its instant analysis ability lets you know if you need to go back to goal or continue in the combination, displaying some hair-raising profiles, controls and a sense of rhythm that will never condition you when the ball is lost. Neither Kane nor Benzema are capable of supporting their own central defenders so resolutely in the event of a crisis. As one technician in Liverpool’s service puts it: ‘He never reserves power for the next game; he does not have the courage not to give his partner a hand, even if he still has to walk 30 meters; he only lives in the now.”
When good humor robbed him of the continuity his skills deserved, his calling to sacrifice puts him in jeopardy. Firmino squeezes his body to the point of injury. He had been suffering from muscular problems for a month when he returned against Everton a week ago and he spared no ounce of energy this Saturday in Newcastle. The data are eloquent: more points are lost without the Brazilian than with him. There is concern between the technical secretary and Klopp over an awareness that the only way to secure Champions League places in the Premier is with Firmino. The technicians don’t know how to dose it without harming the team’s game.
On Tuesday the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 between Liverpool and Madrid will not have a more spectacular peak than the duel between two of the best exponents of the same species: Karim Benzema and the brilliant Roberto Firmino.
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