LIVERPOOL

Liverpool: Firmino or Jota? Klopp's big decision not as easy as it appears

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp is expected to choose between Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino when he picks his side to face Manchester City.

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Firmino or Jota? Klopp's big decision is not as easy as it appears

Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp simply was not having it, no matter how gently the question was pushed his way, no matter how carefully phrased the follow-up.

Klopp would not be drawn to explain why Roberto Firmino is so important to his set-up, because to him it felt like an insult for that to be necessary in the first place.

After five years with Liverpool, the Brazilian forward has, in Klopp's eyes, delivered so much that anybody still needing briefing about his qualities has not been paying attention.

He might still bench Firmino on Sunday, when Liverpool travel to likely title rivals Manchester City, but Klopp was scornful of the need to go over the former Hoffenheim player's history.

Friday's response from Klopp was to be expected.

Back in December 2016, though, a little over a year after both men arrived at Liverpool, Klopp was more inclined to assess the forward who was prised from the Bundesliga at the tail end of Brendan Rodgers' Anfield reign.

"He is a very important player, a connecting player, a finisher, a fighter, a defender, the first defender - that is important," said Klopp.

"A lot of things he is good at are very important for us."

That verdict doubtless still stands, as far as Klopp is concerned, but has Firmino's game changed in the years since he delivered the performances that earned such praise?

A false number nine but the real deal

Firmino's shirt number is a red herring. About as far from a classic number nine as a forward can be, his game, as Klopp astutely had it four years ago, is that of a player who links play, who presses and disrupts opposition, and, yes, who when the time comes can also put away a chance.

Nobody in the Premier League won possession in the final third of the pitch more than Firmino last season, with a total of 37 such instances putting him narrowly ahead of Burnley's Dwight McNeil and Southampton's Nathan Redmond (both 35).

Also last season, as Liverpool streaked to the title, only Firmino's team-mate Mohamed Salah (322), Manchester City's Raheem Sterling (302) and Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha (239) had more touches in the opposition box than him (231).

He played a part in 194 open-play sequences that ended in a shot at goal, Opta statistics show, at an average of 5.8 sequences per Premier League game. Of those, 26 ended in a goal.

Each of those figures for Firmino marked an improvement on the previous campaign, although his goals total slipped from 12 in 2018-19 to a more modest nine from 38 games.

Given that Salah scored 19, Sadio Mané bagged 18 and six others netted four or more, Firmino's reduced goals contribution was not the slightest problem.

Along came Jota

Diogo Jota is thought to have cost Liverpool over £40 million when he arrived in September from Wolves, with Klopp stepping into the market after first failing with efforts to bring Timo Werner to Anfield.

The message to Liverpool's established front three was clear: here is competition.

Klopp pointed generously to the likes of Divock Origi, Takumi Minamino and Xherdan Shaqiri in Friday's news conference, highlighting the other forwards in Liverpool's ranks, and saying: "Pretty much all of them deliver for us in their moments."

But it feels strongly like a case of having to perm four from three for the big games at least.

Firmino has been a mainstay of teams that have accrued 99 and 97 points in the past two Premier League seasons, but his place appears to be the most threatened by Jota's emergence.

The new boy's hat-trick against Atalanta in the Champions League on Tuesday was a major moment, making it perhaps difficult for Klopp not to select him against City.

Firmino has had a hand in just three Premier League goals (one goal, two assists) in seven appearances this season, whereas Salah (seven goals) and Mané (four goals, one assist) are making themselves essential picks.

Jota has started twice and made three substitute appearances in the Premier League and already has three goals.

There is undeniably a strong case for his involvement on Sunday, but is he sure to start?

Why change what isn't broken?

Whether Klopp starts with Jota or Firmino remains to be seen. There is a sense Klopp does not look too closely at the bottom line but sees a bigger picture.

Firmino is still creating chances at a roughly equivalent rate to recent seasons - his numbers went from a 1.5 average chances created per 90 minutes in 2018-19 to 1.6 last term and are slightly down to 1.4 in this campaign.

He is also not shying away from the ball, having an average of 52 touches in games this season compared to 50 in 2019-20, and his passes per game have climbed from 35 last term to 39 in Liverpool's early matches this time around.

In terms of his involvement in those open play sequences that end in a shot, Firmino has slipped slightly to 5.3 in 2020-21, and to 0.5 in such sequences that end in goals.

His numbers are down elsewhere too, with Firmino winning possession in the final third just twice so far in this league campaign, and averaging 2.9 recoveries per game compared to 4.1 last season and 3.9 in the previous year.

It bears pointing out, though, that Firmino's role appears to have changed this season. He is playing deeper, presumably by design rather than personal inclination.

In the attacking half of the field, Firmino is seeing far more of the ball in the initial third than further up the pitch, with 37.14 per cent of his touches in games coming there compared to 27.18 per cent over the course of the last Premier League season.

That is a significant leap, yet it fits with Klopp's previous explanation of his versatility and skillset. If Liverpool need to find more midfield creativity, then Firmino stepping back slightly to collect the ball nearer the halfway line gives them that.

Four into three won't go

Klopp made the point on Friday that Jota traded one hard-working team for another by leaving Wolves for Liverpool, and how that made it a natural transition.

"Nuno is a very, very demanding manager so he knows that an offensive player has to do different jobs; not only creating and scoring, he has to work hard and all these kind of things," Klopp said. 

"It's very good for us that Diogo could settle that quick and that he can gain confidence that early because it makes everything easier."

Perhaps not everything is easier, though.

Klopp has a decision to make this weekend - one of his most heavily scrutinised selection choices as Liverpool boss.

He picked all four of his star forwards against Sheffield United, but surely that was a one-off.

He must get it right given the strength of the opposition. The obvious decision may not be the correct one. All eyes will be on that team sheet come Sunday afternoon.