Roberto Firmino will need a well-defined role at Liverpool to succeed
Roberto Firmino is a classic Liverpool signing, at least in the Brendan Rodgers era. He's a young, talented, technical attacker with room to develop further into a genuinely world-class footballer, and capable of being moulded into the particular type of player Rodgers desires. That assumes, however, that Rodgers knows exactly what he wants from Firmino.
Firmino's position has been the subject of debate. Some English newspapers reported Liverpool had signed a new forward, others described him instead as a midfielder. In truth, the Brazilian is one of those in-between players it's difficult to categorise as either, and his versatility means that while he was generally played as an attacking midfielder for Hoffenheim, he's recently been used up front for his national side. That versatility is one of his great assets, but it can sometimes be a problem for young, developing footballers -- especially when managers shift them around too frequently.
In general, top-level modern attackers are more versatile than their equivalents from a decade ago, largely because the demands of the game has changed, skills have become more universal and therefore players are more interchangeable. Traditionally you'd have wingers playing on the side of their strongest foot and bulky centre-forwards who belonged in the penalty box. Now, with all attackers expected to be capable of passing, moving and chipping in with goals, sometimes teams play attacking quartets that could, in theory, all switch positions.
Liverpool have arguably reached that point with the signing of Firmino. He, like Raheem Sterling -- who Firmino could replace, although it's not unthinkable Sterling and his agent will perform a U-turn and remain at Anfield -- can play anywhere across the front line.
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Lazar Markovic has played on both flanks and as a wing-back. Adam Lallana is a different type of player, more about guile than pace, but he's also played in all three channels. Philippe Coutinho initially played on the left but now prefers a No. 10 role, although he also starred when in a deeper midfield position. Jordan Henderson played in various positions last season, while Emre Can is probably the most confusing of the lot -- a fascinating bundle of attributes that hasn't yet been channeled into expertise in any one position.
Rodgers must be somewhat relieved that he no longer has to determine Steven Gerrard's optimum position at this stage. It often felt like Gerrard was struggling to find his best role, and everyone else was having to shift accordingly. Meanwhile, however, James Milner, the ultimate jack of all trades, has replaced him. All the while, Inter's Mateo Kovacic -- who can't work out whether he's a No. 10 or an Andrea Pirlo-like figure -- is still being linked with the club.
Some degree of versatility is useful, unquestionably, but too much causes problems, especially when a manager like Rodgers tinkers with his formation so much. Arsene Wenger, for example, has a similar number of versatile attackers, and certainly switches formation throughout a season. But he generally likes familiarity, which means that when the team was playing well last season and Aaron Ramsey was on the right, a position he dislikes, Wenger didn't change things to bring him inside and put Mesut Ozil or Santi Cazorla wide, even when Arsenal found themselves behind.
Rodgers, however, would have tinkered. At Liverpool he's struggled to settle upon a definitive formation. The chopping and changing has occasionally worked well, particularly in the 2013-14 campaign, when he had plenty of preparation time for matches and the players looked well-drilled in various shapes.
Even then, though, there were uneasy compromises. Gerrard wasn't great defensively in his deep-lying role, while Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge both wanted to play up front but sometimes Rodgers shifted one wide. By and large, top teams have a definite Plan A in terms of formation, then usually a couple of variations on that, or a clear Plan B. Rodgers has constantly been improvising.
The key to good attacking play is familiarity between players. Very, very rarely -- Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, for example -- do you discover teams that boast good relationships between almost every player. But by and large, it's about partnerships and trios that work together in certain areas of the field.
The title-winning Chelsea side of last season was a good example. Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa formed a brilliant relationship in the first half of the season because they were always in similar zones and always doing roughly the same thing. Fabregas wouldn't find Hazard anywhere but the left, for example, despite the fact the Belgian can play on the right or through the centre, too. They developed a great understanding that maximised their individual qualities.
The six Liverpool midfielders and forwards most likely to start regularly next season are probably Milner, Henderson, Coutinho, Lallana, Firmino and Sturridge. Some will be fighting for their place, and it's debatable whether these six can work without a more defensive midfielder somewhere, but as things stand, they are the six most important players. And from those six, Rodgers could play almost any system he likes, from a diamond midfield to a 4-4-2, from a standard 4-2-3-1 to a Christmas tree. The danger, of course, is that he simply varies things too much and is unable to develop harmony in the final third.
The opening to the 2015-16 campaign is crucial for Rodgers. A couple of poor results and he'll be under immediate pressure from supporters and the local press. More significantly, a couple of defeats mean he'll inevitably change system and shift key players into different roles, which will make it more difficult for the likes of Milner and Firmino to settle. Hopefully, Rodgers already has a clear plan in his head about Liverpool's best lineup and, barring a truly disastrous run, will commit to it for the first couple of months.
Firmino, meanwhile, is a fascinating signing -- Liverpool's most intriguing purchase for many years. To shine, though, he'll need a defined role.