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When Pogba met Salah

Toe Poke
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 By Steven Kelly

Firmino contract extension a boost for Liverpool, victory for Klopp methods

After a frustrating weekend, when Liverpool dropped two points and Chelsea won, fans were in need of some good news.

Clubs often time contract announcements for such a boost so it was no surprise to see Robert Firmino sign an improved long-term contract. It was announced in a way that accentuated the player's quirkiness, signing without looking and walking out the room whistling the Kop's current anthem.

The fuss made over the player is understandable given his importance to the team. He's been one of the standout performers for the Reds in the last two years.

When everyone only seems capable of talking about Mohamed Salah, others nod with approval during almost every game Firmino plays.

Of course there'll be cynicism about the contract, particularly the phrase "long-term". Supporters have been here before with other players.

This feels a little different to Luis Suarez, who'd already tried to force a way out -- to Arsenal, of all people. While some regarded his contract as good news most saw it as a ploy to get his escape route down in writing for the following summer.

Philippe Coutinho's improved contract was regarded with more optimism but he'd been at Anfield for five years with no silverware to show for it. Any approach from a continental giant was bound to end in departure.

You can take the pragmatic view about Firmino; at least if he is ever courted by bigger, more successful clubs the contract will ensure that Liverpool are properly -- even excessively -- compensated financially.

It would've been hard bordering on impossible to imagine this sort of fuss over the Brazilian 30 months ago. His fee seemed excessive and it was easy to rank him alongside Liverpool's transfer debacles of the period like Lazar Markovic, Mario Balotelli or Christian Benteke.

The focus on the big Belgian striker conveniently allowed Firmino to escape large-scale censure. He rarely seemed to do anything for Brendan Rodgers, but things perked up a little when Jurgen Klopp arrived.

Insulting words were bandied about, a jack of all trades but a master of none. Finding a clear role in the team proved difficult. His work rate wasn't as high as it is now, his finishing nothing like as clinical.

Firmino's rise is a testament to the oft-maligned coaching skills of Klopp. The German was stereotyped by his own "heavy metal football" quote as a roaring, hyperactive presence rather than someone who thinks deeply about the game.

The Brazilian is Exhibit A if anyone needs convincing about Klopp's tactical awareness. It's taken time, with everyone struggling to get to grips with the notion of a False No.9 especially when so-called proper strikers like Daniel Sturridge and to an extent Benteke were also available.

Dreadful performances like his no-show at Watford in December 2015 didn't help. Gradually fans got to see what he was capable of; two goals against Arsenal, a vital tap-in against Manchester United in the Europa League and a work rate that rose equally alongside confidence levels.

The arrival of Sadio Mane and the emergence of a different kind of forward line helped Firmino immeasurably, and the colossal impact of Salah has given him more scope to try new and more outrageous tricks and turns.

Whatever happens to Liverpool at the end of this season, their three-man attack is vindication of allowing a manager to gradually work on improving his team.

Whether those improvements continue is hard to predict. Liverpool have had several managers who've provided 90, even 95 percent of what supporters want from their club. Those few final steps are always the hardest.

It's clear Firmino is integral to Klopp's plans. It's only guesswork but you can imagine him fighting harder to retain the forward's services than he ever did for Coutinho.

The responsibility doesn't seem to lie heavy on Firmino's shoulders, however. He appears to enjoy his football more the closer Liverpool come to real achievement. The supporters loved the skills of Suarez and Coutinho. Firmino is loved for himself too and in the modern football world that's not something to be treated lightly. It matters.

He was left out of the 2018 PFA team because of Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero. It's impossible to argue his case on finishing alone, though his is improving all the time.

In terms of an overall contribution to the team Liverpool fans wouldn't swap him for anyone right now and there's always the chance he'll keep getting better.

That makes the new contract a no-brainer and the general jubilation the news was greeted with entirely understandable.

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

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