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Man City challenge leaves Klopp in a selection conundrum over one of his key men

For the first time under the German, Roberto Firmino is under pressure to justify his place.

Klopp with Firmino at the Club Word Cup final last year.
Klopp with Firmino at the Club Word Cup final last year.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

TO THE PREMIER League’s swing state: Manchester City’s home tie with Liverpool. 

It was this game that ultimately decided the 2018/19 title, as Leroy Sane’s goal eked out a frenetic 2-1 win for City. 

It was the last time the sides met in Manchester with anything on the line. Last season, City battered a Liverpool team that looked like they had lost the battle with their hangovers in the wake of their title win.  

Pep Guardiola tapped into the zeitgeist – and this article’s contrived opening – by playing down the significance of Sunday’s meeting. “It’s an important game but like the election for the US president, all the votes must be counted. There are a lot of games to play.” 

The January 2019 meeting has a legitimate claim to be one of the best Premier League games ever, though much has changed since. 

Of the 11 players who started for Manchester City on that day, only Ederson, Aymeric Laporte, Raheem Sterling, and Bernardo Silva are likely to start on Sunday. Of the rest of that line-up: Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero are injured, while Danilo, Vincent Kompany, Sane and David Silva have left the club entirely. John Stones is still at the club, though is largely out of favour. 

Both of City’s goalscorers from that game – Aguero and Sane – will be missing on Sunday.

To further emphasise the change at City since that game: they won it with Kevin De Bruyne as an unused substitute, which is unthinkable today. De Bruyne was majestic – though often unfit – for City that season, but was also asked to play a slightly more disciplined role in midfield. Today, he is given a little more freedom and City are more reliant on him now than at any point in Guardiola’s tenure.  

manchester-city-v-liverpool-premier-league-etihad-stadium Leroy Sane celebrates the goal against Liverpool that ultimately won the 2018/19 title. Source: Martin Rickett

Liverpool, meanwhile, are creeping through the early stages of their own transition.

In midweek, for instance, they beat Atalanta 5-0 featuring three starting players – Rhys Williams, Curtis Jones, and Diogo Jota – who weren’t in the Liverpool squad for the 2018/19 season. 

Of Liverpool’s starting XI from that January 2019 tie, only Dejan Lovren has left the club, but there will be changes elsewhere. 

Virgil van Dijk, of course, will be missing on Sunday, while it remains to be seen whether James Milner has the energy to start a game of such high intensity. 

The rest – Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Salah, and Mane – will all start again. 

Which brings us to Klopp’s central selection dilemma. What to do with Roberto Firmino?

Since Sadio Mane’s arrival in 2017, Firmino has been the pivot on which the Klopp machine has turned. In fact, by the time he leaves the Premier League, he may rank in rarefied status with Claude Makeleke as having invented their own position. 

His pressing from the front and his selflessness in possession set the tone for the collective effort demanded by Klopp, while the intelligence of his movement and the sheer deftness of his skill carved out countless opportunities for Mane and Salah. 

Firmino has been such a perfect player for Klopp that it remains a curiosity he was actually signed under Brendan Rodgers, though under, rather than by, is the operative word.  

Liverpool’s much-maligned transfer committee recruited Firmino, while Rodgers pushed for Christian Benteke. Rodgers played Firmino in a range of different positions but could never figure him out, to the point that after Rodgers was sacked by Liverpool, a generous piece in the Daily Mail claimed the transfer committee had yet to justify the £29 million they spent on him.

(The same piece cast doubt on “laptop guru” Michael Edwards, now Liverpool’s Sporting Director having presided over a stunning series of transfer successes. “Edwards encourages staff to use his nickname ‘Eddie’, giving a matey feel to the working environment”, claimed the piece. “It is understood Rodgers has another name for him.”) 

Klopp justified the fee, but now, for the first time, Firmino has to justify his place. 

Diogo Jota has proved to be a pretty sensational signing thus far, scoring seven goals in eight games across the Champions League and Premier League. Firmino, by contrast, has virtually stopped scoring: since the turn of the year, he has just five goals. 

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Firmino has never been rated based solely on his goalscoring but in recent months his other currencies have devalued. His touch has often been slightly too heavy, and, while he has never had searing pace, he has appeared less dynamic. 

It may be a confidence issue. When Firmino scored in the 4-0 win against Leicester City last Christmas, he ran to the touchline and embraced Klopp, after the manager reassured his goal-shy forward of his importance to the team.  

“I told him I was not interested in that number. He is the connector for our team, he is so important for us. He is the only one who can play the position, and he plays the position in a very special way.” 

Firmino has been the emblem of Klopp’s Liverpool to this point, but they are playing in a slightly different way these days, and with the defence more porous in van Dijk’s absence, they will need to score more goals than they had perhaps budgeted for.

With Jota doing exactly that, it brings scrutiny on Firmino.

He will likely retain the faith of his manager for Sunday’s game given he can is so reliable out of possession, but as circumstances begin to pull Liverpool begin in a different direction, Firmino needs to prove he can keep up. 

Premier League fixtures 

Friday 

Brighton vs Burnley (5.30pm) 

Southampton vs Newcastle (8pm) 

Saturday 

Everton vs Manchester United (12.30pm) 

Crystal Palace vs Leeds (3pm) 

Chelsea vs Sheffield United (5.30pm) 

West Ham vs Fulham (8pm) 

Sunday 

West Brom vs Spurs (12pm) 

Leicester vs Wolves (2pm) 

Manchester City vs Liverpool (4.30pm) 

Arsenal vs Aston Villa (7.15pm)

 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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