Some players merely impress. They parade their superior talents on a weekly basis to universal admiration and the only debate surrounding them is whether they are routinely excellent or comparable to a bygone great.
Then there are the others: the intriguers. My God I love the intriguers.
No-one disputes their class but each in their own divisive way is saddled with misinterpretation. According to deeply entrenched stereotype, Mesut Ozil is prone to anonymity, particularly in big games. Anthony Martial doesn’t care because he doesn’t smile, while Raheem Sterling struggles to finish his dinner. How strange then that these players persistently nail the stats, offering up startling numbers that suggest their influence is substantial; their contribution immense. It’s as if reality knows something that we don’t.
This is not, incidentally, a defence of such individuals and neither is it an attack on those who damn with back-handed compliment. Rather this is a celebration of the rare few who are so often undermined for exhibiting transcendence from one Saturday to the next. Long may they continue to confuse us. Long may they intrigue. Long may they make us dig a little deeper for a true appreciation of their merits because without them challenging us to think then football becomes one big reboot of a Hollywood blockbuster or throwaway pop.
If Ozil is the undisputed king of contradiction as regards to how he’s perceived to how he performs before our very eyes, then Liverpool’s Firmino is the crown prince. Here is a forward who is absolutely integral to his side’s offensive structure and threat yet is commonly an afterthought to Mane, Coutinho and Salah when opposition fans fear their back-line encountering the quartet. This is not due to the Brazilian being under-rated you understand: as previously stated nobody disputes his class. But doesn’t he have a tendency to blow hot and cold? From Liverpool’s key men isn’t he the likeliest to not turn up, sometimes to such an extent that his substitution on the hour mark reminds you that he was even participating at all?
At least that was the impression I used to have. Back in August I wrote for Tifo on players who have a proclivity to drift in and out of games and it was the 26 year old I used for my opening argument, stating that he, more than most of his peers, was guilty of executing impressive, isolated moments before vanishing for fifteen minute spells. In hindsight this was entirely remiss of me which now leaves roughly about a million more people to see the light.
Speak to any Red and they’ll soon put you right. They won’t mention the fact that Firmino boasts the second highest goals/assists combination in the Premier League. They won’t even point out that he has scored more Premier League goals than any other Liverpool player since his arrival in August 2015. Instead they’ll focus on the very aspects of his game that are erroneously considered flaws by those who usually watch Jurgen Klopp’s men in the pub, distracted by spilt pints and a ferocious debate on Brexit going off at a nearby table.
They will laud his relentless industry as he defends from the front in a multifaceted and complicated role that requires the end product of a number 9 but so much more besides. They will marvel at the intelligence of a player who Liverpool writer Henry Jackson assumes is the first name on the team-sheet. And they will praise to the rafters his selflessness on the ball and rabid pressing off it. Tifo’s red-in-residence Jack Lusby claims with certainty that Roberto Firmino is Jurgen Klopp’s ‘perfect player’ and considering the attributes just noted and the German’s ideology it is difficult to disagree with that assessment.
Yet for all his selfless mileage and integrality Firmino seems destined to remain under-appreciated in the great scheme of things which is fine, beyond the frustration, because he’s an intriguer: a player who rewards more on second glance than first. That second glance tells us that he is not Ringo in Liverpool’s Fab Four; the afterthought to Mane, Coutinho and Salah. He is John; he just doesn’t twist and shout about it.