Firmino strikes with his work rate and assists

Brazilian forward Firmino has been described in Germany as "the first stealer of balls" in Hoffenheim's pressing system.
Brazilian forward Firmino has been described in Germany as "the first stealer of balls" in Hoffenheim's pressing system.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

LONDON - In January 2011, German football club Hoffenheim signed Roberto Firmino Barbosa de Oliveira for €4 million (S$6 million) from Brazil's second-division side Figueirense.

At a low-key unveiling, Hoffenheim's sporting director Ernst Tanner explained the club's plans for the unknown 19-year-old Brazilian player: "We will give him enough time to settle at our club."

With hindsight, Firmino, whose move to English Premier League side Liverpool was announced on Wednesday, could hardly have chosen a better club to start his European adventure.

Hoffenheim is a tiny town south of Frankfurt with only around 3,000 inhabitants. The young Brazilian was allowed to settle without the pressure of being at a big club, or even in a big city.

The forward made his Bundesliga debut a month later and played in 11 league games that season, mainly as a substitute, scoring three goals.

And this is the thing about Firmino - he is not an out-and-out scorer. He is a forward who averages roughly a goal every three games, and has done that throughout his career.

What he does provide, though, is an unrelenting work ethic.

In that respect, he is similar to Luis Suarez and Alexis Sanchez, the noted South Americans.

He will harry and press the opponents until he drops.

In one match report in Germany, he was described as the "clever, first stealer of balls in Hoffenheim's pressing system".

Holger Stanislawski, his first manager at Hoffenheim, immediately described him as being "unbelievably good tactically", which will be music to Liverpool tactician Brendan Rodgers' ears after a season of having to teach Mario Balotelli, among other things, how to defend at corners.

In fact, he has been showered with praise for most of his time in Germany, the papers describing him as one of the few players "who stay focused for the entire 90 minutes" and a "master of moving around without anyone noticing him, to provide goals or score them himself".

The 23-year-old was born in Maceio - as were Pepe and Mario Zagallo - which is one of Brazil's most dangerous cities.

His father sold water bottles to commuters and he had to move to Figueirense on his own when he was 16. "It was not an easy time," he has said, "I was completely on my own." But that experience will have prepared him for moving to Germany, and now England.

The 2013-14 season was arguably Firmino's best to date with manager Markus Gisdol not only making him a better attacking player but also instilling the work ethic that was surely a reason for Liverpool paying £29 million (S$62 million) for him.

That season, he scored 16 goals in 33 Bundesliga games, finishing third behind Marco Reus (30) and Robert Lewandowski (31).

He also provided 12 assists in that campaign and is, in fact, the player who has created most chances (138) in the Bundesliga over the past two seasons.

In all, Firmino scored 35 goals in 140 appearances for Hoffenheim and four in nine games for the Brazil national team.

The fee is eye-popping considering it is almost as much as Chelsea paid for Diego Costa and more (with add-ons) than Arsenal paid for Sanchez. But there is no doubt that he is an extremely talented player who is still improving.

There will be few defences in the Premier League looking forward to an afternoon battling Philippe Coutinho, Firmino and Daniel Sturridge - if fit.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2015, with the headline 'Firmino strikes with his work rate and assists'. Print Edition | Subscribe