Steven Gerrard had been 'that guy' before Luis Suarez stepped in and took over from an ageing Gerrard, who was slowly dropping off his peak. Luis Suarez carried the team, and the fans' hopes, on his strong shoulders, but unlike Steven Gerrard, it wasn’t meant to be for long.
When Liverpool’s title charge collapsed in 2013/14, in rather spectacular fashion, the wiser set of Liverpool fans would have foreseen what was to follow. With Suarez departing to Barcelona, their team slipped back into mediocrity once again, and Liverpool’s re-ascension into the European elite was stunted after what was admittedly an unexpected surge.
Suarez, unarguably, is a ‘once in a lifetime' sort of player. The sort you will generally find unparalleled in his ability, down to its specifics. He possesses attributes which elevate him to the class of football’s elite, if not the greatest players – although many will argue that consideration remains a Ballon d’Or or two away. His ability to elevate a team’s quality by just being himself. Emulating him, simply put, is impossible.
It is precisely this sentiment that makes for a raised eyebrow or two when players like Thierry Henry claim that Liverpool may have found a player who could be the person to take his place at the Merseyside club.
A difficult question, we will seek to answer in what is to follow.
The Origin stories
The tough childhood moulded Suarez and Firmino into the footballer they are today. Football became a path to emancipation for their respective families. Both have seen the other end of the line, and hence when it comes to taking the game seriously, they offer themselves an edge, for without football, they know they would’ve remained in a dark place.
Both players made their arrivals at Liverpool at a time when most would generally consider them on the brink of reaching their peaks as players. Both have a certain level of skill which is uncommon. Both have an impeccable work rate to their credit and are complete in their offerings as center forwards. Both players came on the back of European experience (Suarez at Groningen and Ajax and Firmino at Hoffenheim). Both players have had and continued at Liverpool superb goal involvement rates.
Roberto Firmino at Liverpool vs Luis Suarez at Barcelona
Statistics manage, to an extent, to prove to the world that drawing a parallel between the two South American players might not be too farfetched.
No, we’re not being naive here when trying to pit Roberto against Luis from this season in order to figure out if the now-Liverpool man stands anywhere close to the other. We’re establishing, what essentially is, a baseline reference as to the difference between the two now.
The statistics suggest the simple. Luis Suarez is a prolific goal-scorer who creates for his teammates as well. However, the statistics suggest the same for Roberto Firmino, even if the numbers aren’t as prolific as the Uruguayan’s.
The intriguing bit, however, is that Roberto does create as many chances as the Uruguayan sensation, and in a team that possesses far lesser quality than the Barcelona side in most other parts of the pitch.
These stats also do not reveal the fact that Roberto Firmino only really came to life in the second half of this season while spending most of the first half adapting to the rigors of the English game. And on that context, these are not bad numbers for Firmino. Hold your horses for just a bit here though.
Roberto Firmino at Liverpool vs. Luis Suarez, the epicenter of Liverpool’s Title Charge
For someone trying to do a direct statistical comparison between the two, it isn’t really a good idea to compare Firmino’s stats this season to Suarez’s at Barca this very year. It seems more important at this stage to compare in all earnest, the impact Luis Suarez had on a title-chasing Liverpool and in doing so understand how far Roberto is from emulating the same. Hence we move back to when Luis Suarez was a Liverpool player.
You will notice that in barely 8 games more than what Roberto has played this season (Luis played 33 games grossing 2965 minutes that season), Luis Suarez had 23 more goals, 5 more assists and 47 more chances created.
The difference though, is not as massive as projected in this stat matrix except for the goals scored. For every 90 minutes of football, Roberto Firmino creates 2.29 chances and Luis Suarez does only a little better at 2.64 chances per 90 minutes. Suarez assists at 0.36 every 90 minutes, and Roberto is barely better at 0.40 per 90 minutes. The difference here lies in the goals scored. Luis Suarez that season scored at an incredible 0.94 goals every 90 minutes where Roberto could only manage half of that rate(0.46) so far this season.
The goal-scoring could again be attributed to the position of the players on the pitch. It is bare to all that Roberto has only sparingly played centrally up the pitch. He began the season out in wider areas, and right now he is mostly deployed right behind the striker with most of his play around the box than inside it. In context of all these matters, you could argue the statistics push them close to each other.
If for one moment, we would move further back to Luis Suarez’s first full season at Liverpool which came under Kenny Dalglish, we could see from Luis Suarez a goal return of 0.38 per 90 mins and assist count of barely 0.17 every 90 minutes. Roberto seems to be better off in this regard.
But are Statistics Enough to Make a Real Comparison Here?
Simply put - No.
When one compares Luis Suarez’s first full season at Liverpool with that of Roberto Firmino, one has to consider how starkly different Kenny Dalglish’s team was to Jurgen Klopp’s.
The outputs therefore will differ, and hence it is better to lay your belief on cognition, rather than just statistics. More so when the question is more along the lines of whether Roberto Firmino can emulate Luis Suarez’s impact in games as opposed to whether he can end up racking up Suarez’s numbers.
As a Liverpool fan, there has been no greater joy in my decade-long devotion towards the Merseyside club, than watching Luis Suarez play, and even his foolish antics on the pitch cannot upturn it. Suarez would base his ability in his relentless desire, the type of desire that saw him run mile after mile on the pitch charging down the ball, closing down opposition players with relentless pressing and chasing lost causes to turn them into chances.
It is therefore hard to limit Luis Suarez to just statistics, and we must also engage every non quantifiable facet of his game and compare Firmino to the yardstick thus achieved.
Goals from the halfway line, dribbling past opponent after opponent, nutmegs galore, Suarez had everything in his locker.
Roberto Firmino, on the other hand, is yet to show us his best. However, if his goal at Anfield against Arsenal is anything to go by, he has got that extra ounce of quality that sets forwards apart. Petr Cech has seldom been so majestically beaten.
Firmino also has a striker’s finish to him which was evident at Palace when the keeper made a mistake which handed the forward the ball with the goal next to him. The Palace stopper had found his way back up and made his body big enough to stop Roberto, but in those few seconds the Brazilian picked out a spot to finish that saw the ball go in between the keeper’s outstretched arm and body and into the net.
Roberto also continues the proud tradition of completely destroying Manchester United defenders at will, a trait we all loved about Luis Suarez.
Big Game Player
Roberto Firmino also has the innate ability to turn up in the big games. Against the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal he has scored 5 and assisted 3 in 8 appearances across all competitions.
He struck twice in the 3-3 draw at Anfield to Arsenal, he scored twice and assisted once in the thrilling last gasp 5-4 victory to Norwich at Carrow Road, he scored one and assisted the other in a draw vs. Sunderland at Anfield and assisted the only goal of the game at Anfield against league leaders Leicester. This of course isn’t counting the second goal scored against Manchester United in the Europa League first leg right at the death to crucially extend Liverpool’s lead. Quite reminiscent of how Suarez thrives in these matches.
Here above is a heat map of Roberto Firmino in the 9-goal thriller at Carrow Road earlier this season. He was all over the pitch pressing and recovering the ball in a game in which he dictated with 2 goals, 1 assist and the joint-highest number of key passes.
He averages 2.2 tackles a game amongst other defensive numbers which all seem to be comparable to a certain Alexis Sanchez (1.8), and significantly higher than Luis Suarez’s current tally of less than a single tackle a game.
Roberto works hard defensively, he even revels in it, a fact further buoyed by the statistic that since 2014/15, Roberto Firmino has won 44 tackles in the opposition half, the second most in Europe’s top leagues!
His running statistics are also amongst the top in the country, although, that hardly comes across as a surprise in a Jurgen Klopp side.
Impact on team
With him in the team, Liverpool have Won 19 Drawn 10 and Lost 8.
Without him in the team Liverpool have Won 3 Drawn 5 and Lost 2.
This statistic is probably the one that will directly account for a lot of Roberto Firmino’s effect on the team. However, most of the games in which Roberto has missed were that of the Capital One Cup or FA Cup - two competitions where Liverpool have fielded “weakened teams”. Hence, this statistic cannot be relied upon.
But, despite fielding a strong side, minus Firmino, Liverpool struggled at the Old Trafford and more recently against Southampton in the League.
Liverpool capitulated against Southampton after racing into a 2-0 lead, and one has to wonder if the result would’ve been different had Firmino played in that game considering the chances which Liverpool wasted on that night.
Even at Old Trafford, Liverpool dominated proceedings but failed to find the killer pass at times and even missed a chance or two to take a considerable lead in the tie.
It is quite evident that in his second season, a more settled Firmino could bear a greater impact on the team. After all, Luis took nearly two seasons to come into his own at Anfield.
Is he or Is he not the next Luis Suarez?
Not quite there yet, but not all that far away, Roberto Firmino could be the one to take up Luis Suarez’s mantle at Liverpool. Roberto Firmino has all the attributes, but it is one thing to possess them, and another for the team and the manager to utilize it properly.
One of the reasons why Suarez became who he is today is because he became the fulcrum of every team he has played for. Groningen, Ajax, Liverpool and Barcelona have all made him the focus of their attacking units, and ensured everything went to or through him.
Brendan Rodgers agreed to the idea on an interview recently, and Luis Enrique made it quite evident that Suarez was key to his plans when he shifted Messi to a different role to get the best out of the Uruguayan. Both the teams have reaped the benefits of doing that as Suarez returned the favor with goals, and lots of it.
If Jurgen Klopp decides to build his team around Firmino, Luis Suarez’s heir-apparent or not, he is going to be an important player for Liverpool in the years to come.
To sum it up and quote Henry again on the matter,
“Is he Luis Suarez? At the moment he isn't Suarez. But he might be in the future.”