Roberto Firmino rode the bench for most of Liverpool’s game at Newcastle. Not only did Firmino produce the 4th most fantasy points among forwards last season, he was Liverpool’s most valuable fantasy asset. Dropping him for noted opportunity-waster Daniel Sturridge raised my eyebrows. Firmino practically glued last year’s attack together, and Sturridge does not do that.
Firmino’s rise to the top of the fantasy game made him a consensus top 10 pick in drafts this year. Based on that valuation, he has frankly disappointed. Firmino has scored 20+ points in two games, 9 or 10 points in two games, and 3 or less in 3 games this season. Relatively speaking, 10.2 points per game is not bad. However, when compared to the 14.9 mark he put up last season, Firmino has to be frustrating owners.
On the other hand, Heavy Metal Football agrees with new boy Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian has more than lived up to his bill for the Reds this season, scoring four goals and providing an assist as well. But he’s seemed to pick up a little of the Sturridge disease; he certainly has missed his fair share of sitters this season as well.
While they are both listed as forwards in Togga leagues, Firmino and Salah couldn’t be more different. Salah is one of the fastest players in the league, utilizing open space to create his opportunities, whether by bringing the ball with him, or by knocking in a well-timed cross. Roberto Firmino plays more of a false 9 role: less of a out-and-out goal scorer and more of a target man. He utilizes technique to interplay with Liverpool’s rich supply of attackers.
So, coming into this season, it was easy to see why we all rated Firmino so highly; adding another pacy winger should have provided more opportunities for him to unlock the defense. And yet, Firmino has created less opportunities, has taken less shots, has dribbled the ball less and has generally been a shadow of his former self. It seems that major problem is that he’s just seeing less of the ball.
[Editor’s Note: article was completed before news of Sadio Mane’s six-week absence with a hamstring injury]
Liverpool are playing the same formation as last season, however with one major alteration. Salah is an attacker, straight out. He rarely tracks back past the midfield line and when he is, it’s to create more space behind the opposition to run into. This is a noticeable shift from last season, when Sadio Mane played his position.
Mane is a more traditional Premier League winger, in that he is a midfielder. He retreats further to defend and dribbles the ball forward himself more often. Phillipe Coutinho played on Firmino’s other side last season (Coutinho is a midfielder as well). So instead of having three forwards in a 4-3-3, Liverpool played more of a 4-3-2-1 with 2 attacking midfielders, albeit a bit further wide.
Last season, Firmino was rarely the last pass in Liverpool’s attack. He routinely dragged defenders wide with him, or received the ball in a deeper position and let other attackers run by him before playing the ball. Now, Firmino is flanked on both sides with devastating speed and Liverpool’s attack plan has changed slightly. Mane and Salah are playing a little higher upfield than last year, especially Salah. Instead of opening up Firmino’s game, it has hindered him.
Significantly, Liverpool’s playing style has changed. The Reds’ passing volume has decreased; every player in the squad has decreased their number of passes per game. The decrease is substantial too. Passing has dropped by 15-20% across the board. Jordan Henderson, for example, averages 72.3 passes per game, down 16% from last year’s 85.7. Georginio Wijnaldum’s output is down 29% (45.1 to 32.3). Such a dramatic decrease in passing indicates a more direct attack.
More to the point, Roberto Firmino’s passes have decreased by 37% per game, more than any other Liverpool player. That’s exacerbated by the fact that he’s not playing full games. But even when we adjust the passes to a per 90 minute basis, Firmino’s passing still decreases by about 18%. Interplay is the key to Firmino’s fantasy potential, so a streamlined direct attack doesn’t really help the point man.
The thing is, the shift has worked. Much-maligned finishing aside, Liverpool’s shots per game are up by nearly four shots per game, from 15.9 to 19.6. Salah’s and Mane’s pace have provided too many opportunities for Liverpool to ignore with build-up through the middle. A lobbed ball over slower defenses is more devastating, if the chances are put away.
This isn’t Firmino’s style, and he happens to be the one taking the biggest hit. Fantasy has a limit on team value; you can only improve so much without removing some value from another player. We all thought it would be Lallana taking the major losses, but these things pop up in unexpected places.
For all you Bobby owners, don’t stress out too much. As the 13th ranked forward, he still warrants a spot in your lineup every week. One of the hardest things to do in draft leagues is ensuring that you get 1st round value out of your first round pick. Every year, a few players slide and a few more players rise. It’s the natural order of things.
I have confidence that Liverpool will still be one of the most productive fantasy sides this season. After all, they are creating 19.6 shots per game (1st in EPL). In all likelihood, Firmino is just figuring out how to best connect with his new teammate. He does already have 2 goals and 2 assists in the Premier League. Extrapolated out, he would finish above both marks last season. It’s just worth remembering, nothing is a sure shot in fantasy.