Liverpool contract dilemmas 2023: When it comes to the club future of Roberto Firmino, much hinges on how Jürgen Klopp envisages his future evolution.
Liverpool are in the throes of a contract crisis. Mohamed Salah is dominating the headlines, but Jürgen Klopp faces five headaches as the 2023 apocalypse draws ever nearer.
Having handled Naby Keïta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain over the previous two days, Liverpool.com will now really get into the heart of the matter. In Roberto Firmino, the club might just have the trickiest contract dilemma of the lot.
On its face, the Brazilian’s situation looks like the easiest to resolve. After all, he is the oldest of all the players up for renewal: typical FSG logic would dictate that he is allowed to leave, making way for the next generation. In Diogo Jota, his successor may well be at the club already.
However, the owners showed their willingness to make exceptions last summer when they handed a new deal to Jordan Henderson, more than a year Firmino’s senior. This supposedly followed a Klopp intervention: the manager has since handed his captain more appearances than anyone else this season, so the bar for such an extraordinary intervention is set at a high level. Nonetheless, Firmino can make a case for one.
For the first time in three seasons, Firmino is outperforming his expected goals this season. The miss against Nottingham Forest was a reminder to fans that he will still never be the most clinical of strikers, but he has refound something of his goal-scoring touch. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this has come from a more regular role as a substitute — a transition that Henderson himself is also making.
Equally, the 30-year-old has never been in the Liverpool side primarily for his goal-scoring. His off-the-ball work is second to none, and it remains the case that he is probably the least replaceable player in the traditional Klopp attack. Jota has the pressing volume, but still lacks the same pressing intelligence, and is far less involved in build-up play.
The trouble for Klopp is that he will eventually have to ‘replace’ Firmino, even if he cannot do so directly. Indeed, that process has already begun. Does he accelerate it, selling the Brazilian in summer while some residual resale value remains? Or does he squeeze the last drops out of his unique fulcrum, getting FSG to offer a contract extension — and kicking the problem of truly evolving beyond him down the line, to his own potential successor as manager?
There is one way out of this dilemma for Klopp. As part of the future beyond Firmino, he has made a concerted effort to increase the creativity from his midfield this season. In Jota, he has a more predatory poacher, but that requires his traditionally functional midfield to take up some of the slack in terms of making things happen. It could be that he could transition the 30-year-old into this role.
After all, as mentioned, he is younger than Henderson. Klopp calculated that the captain could still play a useful part primarily in this number eight role beyond 2023, and if he thinks Firmino is similarly capable then he may have found his solution. It would be neat if the striker could essentially help enable the team’s transition, effectively weaning Liverpool off his unique talents by dropping into midfield.
Klopp briefly experimented with this at one point this season, reshuffling his pack in-game before ultimately restoring Firmino to the front line before full-time, but the 20-minute glimpse was promising. No striker in the world is as qualified to adapt to the defensive duties of the role, while the pressing and creativity are certainly covered too.
Nor would Firmino necessarily need to be the first name on the team sheet. If he develops the genuine ability to cover as both a forward and a midfielder, he becomes a hugely useful squad option, allowing Klopp to rotate and tweak in-game as necessary. Such a squad role would also reduce the strain on his body as he entered the twilight years of his career.
However, this is all conjecture. Aside from a very brief flirtation with the idea, Klopp has shown no indication that this is his plan. If he concludes that Firmino is not suited to one of his revised number eight roles, the striker is effectively back to square one. As a pure forward, the team has to evolve beyond him, and if this is all he offers then Liverpool would be justified in cashing in.
Quite how much Firmino would fetch in the transfer market is unclear, which adds another element of confusion to the dilemma. Fundamentally, however, the decision must lie with Klopp: his plans for the Brazilian will ultimately dictate his Liverpool future.
Tags: Roberto Firmino