How will Liverpool ever (eventually) replace Roberto Firmino?
In recent weeks many reports have linked Liverpool’s 28-year-old attacker Roberto Firmino with a £75m move to Bayern Munich. As expected, this hasn’t gone down well with Liverpool fans.
Firmino is a favorite among many Liverpool fans due to his selfless play and boundless work ethic when out of possession. He may not score as many as other number nines around the world, but the way he plays helps bring out the best in wide forwards Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané.
While it’s likely these reports are nonsense and talking about them is a waste of time, it does raise some questions about Liverpool’s front three. For four seasons Liverpool have had a high powered attacking trio — though upgrading from original member Philippe Coutinho to Salah pushed them to an entirely different level. They’ve helped the team to a 97 point Premier League season and two consecutive Champions League finals, winning the second — not to mention what they’re in the middle of accomplishing right now. The idea of breaking them up seems preposterous.
However, by the end of the 2020–21 season, each of the front three will be 29 years old. There’s no need to panic — Liverpool won't just dump them all as a 29th birthday present — but the club have definitely got some thinking to do.
Liverpool are in the best position to make these decisions, having more data on the players and a better idea when they might start to decline, but if the club doesn’t want to make wholesale changes to their front line, it’s hard to imagine one of the front three won’t move on in the next eighteen months. How they move on from the current attacking unit might be the biggest test for this new-model Liverpool.
Replacing Firmino is arguably the most interesting angle to explore. Finding players with the same quality as Salah or Mané will be difficult, but similar goal-scoring wingers seem more common than players like Firmino. That’s not necessarily because there aren’t many players capable of doing what he does, but because not many combine his position of striker with his responsibilities on the pitch. With so few teams lining up with a forward that fits this mold, there's not a lot of obvious places for Liverpool to look.
RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner has been linked to Liverpool for months now and could be a solid choice. Of players born in 1996 or later, only Kylian Mbappé has a higher non-penalty combined expected goals and expected goals assisted per 90 minutes in Europe’s top five leagues this season. Liverpool have also been linked to the Frenchmen but what could sway the decision is the approximately £50m release clause for Werner.
Werner’s xG output is greater than Firmino’s this season, as it was the season before. Werner’s xG numbers are consistently improving, with both his xG and xG assisted rising under Julian Nagelsmann. The forward has assisted 0.27 xG per 90 this season, while Firmino has around 0.20 per 90 for each of the last three seasons. Werner is more than just a goalscorer.
The question lies in his defensive contribution. Playing under managers like Ralf Rangnick, Ralph Hasenhüttl and Julian Nagelsmann, Werner isn’t a stranger to working hard out of possession, but isn’t as active as Firmino. The diagrams show Leipzig's front-footed approach, as well as the difference in activity between the pair. Werner's defensive activity is mainly focused on the wing, where he is asked to contribute, and to his credit he delivers.
Firmino, on the other hand, is everywhere.
It’s not to say that Werner couldn’t adapt, but despite his qualities, replacing Firmino with Werner will likely not result in a seamless transition. Werner might be a player who would benefit more from playing alongside Firmino than replacing him. A front three of Werner, Mané and Salah would be strong, but it would also be different — though this wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.
Setting aside the Bundesliga rumours, Liverpool have to replace Firmino someday. Going out and signing one of the most talented young forwards in Europe for a decent fee certainly wouldn’t be bad, but maybe there’s a player flying under the radar. After all, Firmino rarely played the role he does now at Hoffenheim. Liverpool just need to find a player with the skillset to play Firmino’s role and provide good value for the price.
Rather than go in-depth and look at different players, there's just one player I'd like to examine, and that's 23-year-old Emi Buendía from Norwich.
No, he's not some obscure gem. He’s a player putting up strong numbers in the Premier League and attracting lots of attention. Given Liverpool’s well-documented success signing players from freshly relegated clubs, it’s quite easy to imagine Buendía at Liverpool.
He’s played mostly from the right this season, but evaluating his past positions is necessary to determine if Buendía has the skillset to be a Firmino replacement.
Creativity stats are where Buendía shines most. His xG assisted per 90 is the third-best in the Premier League this season and the best for those born in 1996 or later — which is no mean feat given he’s playing for the league's bottom side. Across Europe’s top five leagues, he’s 7th for those born in 1996 or later.
The impressive xG assisted doesn’t come in isolation. In the same age group, Buendía is second in the Premier League for both passes into the penalty area per 90 and through balls per 90. These numbers seem perfect for a player who will drop deep when the likes of Salah and Mané are running ahead of him.
The Norwich man is even a high volume dribbler. He completes 4.1 dribbles per 90 with a success rate of 73.9%. For reference, constant dribbling outlier Adama Traoré completes 5.2 per 90 with a 74.7% success rate.
His off the ball numbers are encouraging but come with a few caveats. He's active, but mostly from a deeper right position. He makes more pressures and pressure regains than Firmino, but plays for a less dominant side and in a deeper role.
His defensive activity reveals several positives, however. He makes a similar number of counter pressures as Firmino, suggesting his pressures don’t just come from situations where Norwich have dropped back, and he makes more possession-adjusted tackles and interceptions than the Brazilian. His work ethic off the ball is there, it might just take some tweaking to utilise it in a different area of the pitch.
Buendía definitely passes the eye test too. He’s not only aesthetically pleasing, but it’s easy to imagine sequences like this one if he steps into the Firmino role. He drops into a pocket of space, shows some nice footwork and plays someone in behind.
The same can be said about his pass against Aston Villa, where he plays Teemu Pukki in on goal rather than making the easy pass out wide.
Then, while Nicolás Otamendi didn’t do much to help himself, what feels more Firmino than winning the ball back high up, going through on goal, only to be unselfish and find his teammate in a better position?
The biggest question mark over Buendía is his goalscoring — the area of Firmino’s game that's been criticized the most during his time at Liverpool. Firmino currently has a non-penalty xG of 0.45 per 90, his highest value across the last three seasons. Buendía’s 0.09 per 90 just doesn’t come close.
There’s a possibility that getting into better goal scoring positions is something that could be coached into his game, while playing for a more dominant side may also see his numbers increase. Scoring is just not his job in this Norwich side; with Pukki ahead of him, his main priority is to supply his teammate rather than find goal-scoring positions himself. On the other hand, this could just be a weakness in his game.
Buendía would likely make a good signing for Liverpool, though he’d probably be better received first as a rotation option for the front three than an outright replacement for Firmino. He looks to have the attributes to play the role, given his creativity, ability to find pockets of space and hard work when out of possession, but there are question marks over his goalscoring and whether he would adapt to the new role.
If Liverpool opt for a more orthodox striker than Firmino for the future of their attack, it’s hard to look past Werner. His strong numbers seem to be only improving, his release clause makes him a good value and he will likely have over 15,000 minutes of Bundesliga football under his belt by the end of the season at just 24 years old. He may take a bit of time to adapt to Liverpool, but given how he’s improved over recent seasons, it should come rather quickly.
Of course, Liverpool could just go get both. While Buendía doesn’t fit into the wide forward role, if Liverpool do have more of an orthodox forward, having a wide creator like Buendía may be a nice option to have.
While considering any offers for the front three may seem crazy, it surely won’t be long until Liverpool break up the trio that’s brought them so much joy in recent years. However, they are no longer in a position where they need to sell to buy. Their small net spend combined with their success across recent seasons means they should have a lot of financial power, and they could raise this summer selling fringe players like Xherdan Shaqiri and Harry Wilson.
It’s a tricky situation for Liverpool to navigate. On the one hand, they can afford to spend on players like Werner, Buendía or even Jadon Sancho, knowing they can recoup the outlay later. But it’s unlikely that these players (with the exception of Buendía) will accept a non-starting role.
On the other hand, it’ll be difficult for Liverpool to break up such a dominant side. They’re in the middle of an absolutely historic season. No one wants to conclude a Premier League title-winning, record-points-haul, possibly invincible season by saying, “So long and thanks for all the memories,” even if it’s the right thing to do. But after the past three seasons, it’s hard to imagine the club getting more out of the front three than they currently have. If Liverpool can sign an elite younger player to replace one of their attacking trio, they likely won't see a significant drop off. It seems more beneficial in the long-term to be proactive and begin to shore up the future of the attack than to sit back and think "one more’"— particularly when reinforcements will likely be needed to replace aging players in midfield as well. It’s a devilishly difficult problem to solve. Of course, “How do we best kick on from one of the best seasons in history” is exactly the kind of problem everyone in the footballing world is desperate for.