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expert view Carragher: Why Klopp will choose Firmino over Jota for the Man City showdown


Jota would not be the first Liverpool striker to score a hat-trick and sit on the bench - ask Robbie Fowler

Jota would not be the first Liverpool striker to score a hat-trick and sit on the bench - ask Robbie Fowler

Jota would not be the first Liverpool striker to score a hat-trick and sit on the bench - ask Robbie Fowler

I would be surprised if Roberto Firmino did not start for Liverpool against Manchester City tomorrow.

In normal circumstances, that sounds obvious. But Diogo Jota’s immediate impact – including scoring a Champions League hat-trick against Atalanta – has put Firmino’s position under scrutiny, with plenty arguing it is inconceivable a striker in such prolific form can be left out.

Jota would not be the first Liverpool striker to score a hat-trick and sit on the bench in the next game (ask Robbie Fowler!), but it would be unusual. It will also be explainable.

Firmino’s return will be tactical, not controversial. He is always going to be at his most effective against a side like City.

Liverpool’s and Firmino’s most impressive Premier League performances this season were against Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton. Why? Because Liverpool excel playing teams who attempt to play from the back and Firmino is Klopp’s main disruptor – the first point of the high press. No Premier League player won possession more than him last season, Firmino doing so on 37 occasions.

Under Klopp, Firmino has executed this specialist role as well as any No 9 in the world, as vital to the package of the Liverpool front three as Sadio Mane (inset) and Mohamed Salah’s goals.

Changing that formula against a team of City’s style would go against what has worked brilliantly throughout Klopp’s tenure, Firmino tasked with denying space for centre-backs or deep midfielders trying to play from back to front.

When Liverpool play City, the specific challenge is tailor-made for Firmino’s qualities. Tomorrow’s match is one of the few games in a season where Klopp understands his side may go prolonged periods out of possession. That is why he will not think twice about turning to his established front three.

He said as much in midweek, railing against perceived criticism of Firmino.

“In the moment when somebody is shining we immediately speak about another player who played what feels like 500 games in a row,” Klopp said.

“Without Bobby Firmino, we would not be in the Champions League. He will be in the team, and for a lot of people in the world if you ask them, ‘What makes Liverpool special?’ they would say, ‘The way Bobby Firmino is playing’.”

Klopp is right about Firmino’s pivotal contribution. He is a cog in the wheel. Even so, Firmino needs to step it up. In the seven league games so far, he is well short of his previous possession-winning numbers. He has won the ball only twice in the final third this season. Mane (nine) and Salah (seven) have eclipsed him in that area as much as their goalscoring.

That is mainly because of Firmino’s problems against teams who play long from the back. Aston Villa, Sheffield United and West Ham bypassed Liverpool’s high press, thus negating Firmino’s impact. That is when he needs to find alternative ways to greatly influence a game. In those circumstances, the onus is on him to be more productive with the ball, assisting or scoring.

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 Roberto Firmino is under pressure from Jota

Roberto Firmino is under pressure from Jota

Roberto Firmino is under pressure from Jota

His statistics compare unfavourably, not only with Jota’s, but his own previous records. Firmino’s chance-creation rate per game this season is the lowest of his Anfield career. That does not mean he should be left out at the Etihad, but shows why more questions have been asked, and why any implication that championing Jota is intended as a rebuke of Firmino is wrong.

Liverpool supporters are well educated when it comes to identifying Firmino’s assets, and how fundamental he has been, and will continue to be, to Klopp’s success. They know his primary role is not goalscoring. They also know that his dip in goal form and creativity is not a recent phenomenon.

Everyone regularly watching Liverpool last season could identify his drop-off compared to previous years. We are judging to the highest standards, but Firmino’s first Premier League goal at Anfield last season came in the final game against Chelsea. While that did not matter in the grand scheme of the title race, it demonstrated that there is one facet of his game which is not world-class. For a No 9, Firmino does not score enough. That is why Jota’s emergence represents a short-term and long-term threat to his position for the biggest fixtures.

The early signs are that over the next few years Jota can replicate what Firmino does so well off the ball, working tirelessly to win it back, while contributing more goals. He has already scored more for Liverpool than Firmino across the whole of 2020. Jota was described as a “pressing monster” when he signed. The fact he can absorb goalscoring responsibility is critical to how Klopp’s side will evolve.

Looking at Liverpool going into this season, there were a couple of areas I felt needed addressing. I saw a team who, aside from the additions of Alisson and Fabinho, were effectively the same as that who lost the 2018 Champions League final to Real Madrid.

Signing Thiago Alcantara was a major step forward in midfield.

I also felt it was essential Klopp signed another high-class striker, which is why I considered it a major statement when Jota arrived. There has been too much pressure on Salah and Mane to deliver.

Any opposing manager will understand it is next to impossible to stop those two, but if either or both has an off day, who scores? The full-backs create rather than score. The midfielders have specialist, tactical roles and score infrequently. Virgil van Dijk has scored more than any Premier League centre-back since he joined Liverpool, so his absence removes another threat. That means Jota adds a new dimension.

I understand Klopp’s desire to defend and protect Firmino. Klopp’s strength is his relationship with his players. Equally, that emotional attachment makes it a challenge when it comes to making cold decisions in the future.

The longer a manager spends at a club, the greater the prospect of having to let down players who have run through the brick wall for him. Some are more capable of being ruthless than others, as Alex Ferguson demonstrated with the likes of Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Roy Keane. Klopp never had to do that at Borussia Dortmund because all the players he developed into Bundesliga winners – Mario Gotze, Nuri Sahin or Robert Lewandowski are examples – were taken from him by other clubs.

It will be fascinating to see how Klopp deals with those who have been so vital in his first title-winning team, and the first decision when rebooting a line-up tends to involve world-class strikers.

All of those at Liverpool are in their late twenties, and although every player slows down at a different rate, strikers tend to have the shortest shelf life.

Liverpool are still some way off that situation. For now, Firmino remains the go-to No 9 for Klopp.

He will be under no illusions of the pressure on him to get back to his best, though. For Liverpool, that competition can only be good news. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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