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Transfer Rater: Jan Oblak to Liverpool

Football Whispers
 By Steven Kelly

Liverpool's Roberto Firmino dispelling doubts with fine form

Roberto Firmino has made an excellent start to 2016 for Liverpool.

Writing about football, particularly making early judgements on players, can be a precarious business.

As an ordinary fan, you can sit calmly, reflect upon the numerous previous talents that took a while to flourish and withhold criticism until such time as it becomes blatantly obvious that player isn't going to make it.

In the case of Liverpool's Roberto Firmino, the turnaround in his form has certainly left this writer swivelling on a hook of his own making.

Back in December 2015, the young Brazilian was utterly wretched against a dominant Watford side that had every right to view a 3-0 win over the Reds as insufficient reward for their overall performance given how poor Liverpool were.

The following day's blog singled out Firmino for special criticism. There was even an inference that he was not pulling his weight, when really he'd looked more lost than anything else.

Baffling, since Liverpool had used the same forward trio of Firmino, Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho that had destroyed Manchester City 4-1 a month earlier -- a game in which the summer signing from Hoffenheim excelled.

David Usher had been equally scathing in his match ratings -- 3/10, and he was lucky to get even that. "Contributed absolutely nothing and that City display looks increasingly like a false dawn." Strong stuff, but based on his previous month's play entirely justified.

So what's changed? Statistics show that for goal "involvement," Firmino is in pole position for 2016 so far, with seven scored and four created. Better than Sergio Aguero and the rejuvenated Diego Costa, in fact.

Just before 2015 ended, Firmino did set up Christian Benteke for the winner against Leicester City, a vital win that stopped the rot of one point from nine against Newcastle, West Brom and Watford -- hardly the most towering of opposition.

There was certainly a rise in appreciation from the fans after his two goals in the 3-3 draw against Arsenal on Jan. 13. One was an instinctive striker's "poach" and the other a sublime curling effort from outside the box.

Confidence is key and somehow, having shown the Anfield faithful his capabilities, he began to contribute more. Perhaps people expected too much at the beginning. The ghost of Luis Suarez haunted him from the start, in articles such as the one that strangely claimed he was "a thiever of balls."

The impression was certainly given that this was a player who would relentlessly hunt down the opposition but, although there are similarities in the physical side of Bundesliga to that of the Premier League, there's still a significantly different approach here in England.

Even now Firmino can find himself fazed by the chaos all around him. He had a poor Capital One Cup final against City, and even in the most recent win against Crystal Palace -- where he scored the equaliser -- he drifted in and mostly out of the game as the tackles flew in.

In fact, "drifting" is a suitable description for what he does and he would not be the first Liverpool newcomer to suffer from a lack of identity within the team. Players like Lallana, Lazar Markovic and even Coutinho at times have seemed not to settle because of this lack of a definitive role.

Coutinho subverted that problem by making regular outstanding contributions and his fellow Brazilian has done the same so far in 2016.

They are not out-and-out strikers, not purely midfield players -- that can make their integration into a side so much harder and Liverpool seem to recruit more than their fair share of such talents.

Liverpool's comeback against Palace on Sunday neatly camouflaged Firmino's weak role in the home side's goal, a flimsy attempt to control the ball in his own box just before Joe Ledley rifled home. There had been poor attempts by others to clear before that, admittedly.

Variety and versatility are considered managerial essentials. One formation, one style all the time is easy to counter. There have, in recent seasons, been accusations of Liverpool having too many options, confusing both players and coach.

As ever, balance is essential. Jurgen Klopp has the distinct image of knowing exactly what he wants, in contrast to his predecessor Brendan Rodgers. Slowly but surely this has helped Firmino acclimatise to a new country and help bring his particular skills to the fore.

Unlike in December, Liverpool fans now see the ability he's clearly always possessed. Before Christmas, few would have praised him for his finishing but he has shown a lot of poise in the way he's taken some of his chances.

Thanks to his and Benteke's goals against Palace, Liverpool now have two players in the Premier League's top 20 scorers. That they had nobody on that list by the end of February was embarrassing for a club with long-term Champions League ambitions, two years after Suarez and Daniel Sturridge vied with Aguero for top spot in season 2013-14.

In fact, Liverpool have scored more league goals than anyone in 2016. You could be nasty and say 11 of those 21 goals were scored against Aston Villa and Norwich but nobody else is achieving such scores against those teams, particularly on their own grounds.

Klopp's main problem will be utilising Firmino with a proper striker ahead of or alongside him, as most of his good work this season has come whenever Sturridge and Benteke were not present. Long-term the manager knows he must have a sure-fire 20-goals-a-season man up front to succeed.

The task for Firmino then is to carry on this form, proving to the manager that it isn't just a lucky "streak" that vanishes almost as swiftly and perplexingly as it came.

He will need to work hard on his tendency to drift in and out of important matches. It is true that the player's big fee could have affected his earlier performances in the same way Benteke now claims it's affected him

Fans have seen a better Firmino in the last few months. The rest of the season will help determine if that is the real Firmino.

Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.


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