World Cup 2018: Why Roberto Firmino deserves to start for Brazil
A country had gone football-comatose following the painful 7-1 thrashing at the hands of the Germany in the last edition of the quadrennial extravaganza. This was followed two years later by a debacle at the Copa America Centenario, where the Canarinha were kicked out after the group stage having finished behind Peru and Ecuador.
The board replaced Dunga - undoubtedly with an eye on the 2018 World Cup - and to his credit, Adenor Leonardo Bacchi aka Tite has done a lot of things right with the Brazilian national team since taking over as coach about two years ago.
The incumbent manager not only revamped the squad, but also followed a pragmatic approach, injected style and creativity whilst keeping a tight unit. He also brought back belief among the players and fans, who once again, seemed united in purpose.
Tite also made another call – preferring Gabriel Jesus to lead his forward line.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this; Jesus has had an excellent season with Manchester City in the Premier League and played his part in ensuring his team finished as league champions. However, when this implies that Roberto Firmino is relegated to the bench of the Brazilian national team, it does not seem like a very impressive decision.
It is true that not all players who don their national colours are able to bring the rich vein of form they showcase at their respective clubs (ask Higuain!) to international tournaments. There is also the case that despite being instrumental for their clubs, some players just do not slot into their national teams, with international form and position on the pitch combined with the manager’s style of play dictating the terms.
It is also equally true though, that despite the above and in spite of all their creative ingenuity, Brazil could do with a man of Firmino’s calibre leading from the front at a showcase event like the World Cup.
There are (at least) three key reasons why Firmino deserves to start for Tite’s men in Russia, each of which is elaborated in due course below.
Movement and strength
He may not have blinding pace, but Roberto Firmino brings a level of movement and strength - unlike any of his compatriots – to the final third of the pitch.
In knockout tournaments where the focus is on a single result, many teams would set up to be deep and/or physical against the likes of Brazil. The Canarinhas learnt this to their cost against the Swiss (although their tepid and lacklustre display did them no favour either).
The European side defended well and out-muscled Jesus despite the latter’s advantage in terms of speed. Firmino, on the other hand, is rarely strong-armed out of the picture.
Playing in the Bundesliga followed by the PL – and not just along the artsy corridors of Brazil – the number 11 has had to fight his battles and he learnt to do it in a street-smart way. He refuses to cow down or lay spread-eagled on the floor, instead launching into tackles and playing the role of the first line of defence.
His continuous movement and ability to control the ball, combined with his vision and creative input could give tremendous advantage to Tite and co. It would also mean drawing away defenders and freeing up space for the likes of Neymar and Coutinho to take the chances to score.
Ask Liverpool fans who the most important player at the club is and for once, they will agree (almost unanimously I daresay) that it is their number nine.
Firmino did not have the most auspicious of starts to his career on Merseyside but the arrival of Klopp and the German’s success in building a team around ‘Bobby’ has seen him become ‘the system’ from a man perilously close to being written off as another failed signing of the transfer committee.
Against Switzerland in the opening game, Firmino’s introduction with ten minutes of regular time to go resulted in a flurry of chances being created - more than the entire team seemed to have managed until then.
This not only put the Swiss on the backfoot, but also created a sense of urgency and hunger in his own teammates. Talk about leading from the front and having an impact eh?
Influence also does not necessarily mean that he scores; his presence creating opportunities for others also qualifies in equal measure.
Elegance, vision and effectiveness
When your team has the artistic brilliance and dribbling of Neymar Jr. and the easy-and-pleasing-on-the-eye style of Philippe Coutinho, what chance does Firmino stand of being noticed? Next to nil, especially when he does not start regularly enough for Tite.
When Firmino is spoken of, most of the talk centres around his defensive contributions, strength, along with his direct and indirect creative contributions. What is often ignored, or escapes notice is his slick moves and the subtle effectiveness of his style.
He may not score outrageous free kicks from the edge of the box, but it may have been his pass to Coutinho that enabled the latter to take up the position.
His no-look goals are a rage in the Premier League and some of his passes have led to the most efficient counterattacks for Liverpool.
Firmino reads the game brilliantly and his rapport with Coutinho is telepathic, something Tite should capitalize on for the national setup instead of letting such a talent rot on the bench.
Additionally, given the fact that Neymar is not 100% fit and firing, Firmino’s presence will offer him additional physical protection while allowing for a semblance of freedom and space in the face of opposition defenders.
Roberto Firmino remains one of the most impactful yet under-appreciated players in the world. Despite his form for Liverpool during 2017/18, which in turn also happens to be his most successful as a professional player, the Brazilian often goes under the radar when the best players are discussed.
This World Cup, Brazil need a player like him and there is no reason why he cannot slot alongside Jesus if need be. His form and the resultant output for club – and when he has had the opportunity, for country as well – merit more than a call-up to be on the sidelines.
Firmino has done more than enough to earn a place in the starting line-up and if there is anyone who deserves to be among the names on the team-sheet against Costa Rica, it is him.