Only Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows what gave him the most relief when Liverpool substituted Roberto Firmino in the 76th minute of their 5-0 thrashing at Manchester United.
Was the beleaguered Norwegian glad to see the back of the Liverpool No 9 because his masterful display of incisive running, slick passing and intricate positioning had turned United’s defence into rubble?
Or was Solskjaer simply glad that as Firmino made his way off the pitch, the travelling Liverpool fans gave the United boss a brief respite from their ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ taunts to applaud the Brazilian, who looks right back to his best? Only he knows, and he has far bigger things to think about than his pride right now.
Roberto Firmino celebrates with Mohamed Salah after Liverpool thrashed Man United 5-0
Firmino left the pitch in the 76th minute after a display that tormented the United team
Firmino celebrates Liverpool’s opener after his smart play made space for Naby Keita to score
Jurgen Klopp, meanwhile, has never needed a second chance to heap praise on his No 9 and amid a long line of plaudits he had to dish out in his post-match remarks, it was the comments on Firmino that stood out most.
‘Bobby, for people with football knowledge, I’m pretty sure when he finishes playing people will write books about the way he interpreted the false nine position,’ Klopp beamed. ‘I don’t say he invented it or we invented it, but with the way he plays it, from time to time it looks like (that)!
‘There are different things to do on the pitch – some of them are defensive, and what he did in that department tonight was absolutely insane. Offensively he is a nice link-up player and he finishes off from time to time as well.’
His link-up play was vital for Liverpool’s opener – he hoodwinked Harry Maguire by dropping deep into the space between United’s defence and their midfield axis of Fred and Scott McTominay to receive a pass from Diogo Jota.
Maguire scrambled to get close to Firmino, leaving a gap for Mohamed Salah to run into where he was duly found by the Brazilian. Naby Keita spotted room for his own overlapping run and when Salah threaded him through, it was a routine chance and he broke the deadlock after just five minutes.
Firmino (in possession) dropped deep between United’s defence and midfield, pulled Harry Maguire out of the backline and made space for Salah and Keita to pour forward
Firmino’s hard yards in and out of possession helped lay the groundwork for a famous win
Firmino joins the celebrations after Mohamed Salah got his first and Liverpool’s third of the day
For Liverpool’s third, Firmino and Salah linked up sumptuously with a one-two on the edge of United’s area. Salah’s initial shot was blocked but the Egyptian got on the end of the ensuing ball drilled into the six-yard area by Keita.
Firmino was involved in the fourth as well, albeit with less purpose than the previous two as he controlled a high pass on the edge of the United area. He was harried off the ball by Maguire and Fred but the ball fell to Andrew Robertson, who took full advantage of the space around Maguire and Salah eventually slotted home for the fourth.
But it was the fifth – Salah’s hat-trick goal – where Firmino’s graft was most evident. He had practically dropped into midfield to tackle half-time substitute Paul Pogba and roll the ball through the Frenchman’s legs into the feet of Jordan Henderson, who played a sublime pass with the outside of his boot into Salah to complete his treble. But no Firmino, no goal in that instant.
‘He is a connector; the best offensive defender I ever saw in my life. A very important player for us,’ Klopp said afterwards.
‘He’s a ball-chaser, incredibly smart tactically and able to play in the tiniest spaces; to make good decisions in really quick time.
‘And on top of that he can score goals, which is why we are so happy when he rewards himself from time to time, like the hat-trick he got at Watford.’
It’s everything United need but don’t have at the moment. Gary Neville has made the same salient point on a few occasions of how players such as Darren Fletcher, Ji-Sung Park and Owen Hargreaves were vital for the successes United enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson and how they helped Ronaldo reach the heights that he did in his first spell.
‘Ronaldo needs players around who can work really hard defensively,’ Neville told his Sky Sports podcast in early October. ‘That was the same in 2008 by the way. Ji-Sung Park, Darren Fletcher, Owen Hargreaves, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez they all worked like Trojans to make up for Cristiano in terms of what he was doing.
‘The best players don’t make the best team. That’s why I had a career at Manchester United, it’s why Darren Fletcher, Nicky Butt, Ji-Sung Park, Owen Hargreaves and players of that ilk had careers because you need soldiers alongside the generals that you’ve got.
‘Manchester United have got a lot of generals but unless they start working hard they ain’t going to win anything.’
Gary Neville has long said how United need workhorses to bring the best out of the team
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has always heaped praise upon Firmino’s ability at Anfield
Firmino has six goals in nine games for Liverpool so far this campaign and while his job in the team is to do far more than just score, it was an obvious area for improvement on last season, where he netted just nine times across the entire campaign in 48 appearances.
A curveball, of sorts, was the arrival of Diogo Jota, who made a seamless transition into life at Liverpool and was immediately breathing down Firmino’s neck for a place in the starting line-up.
Klopp still seems to turn to Firmino ahead of Jota for the big games – the Brazilian started against Chelsea in the second game of the season and also against Atletico Madrid in midweek, where he made his 300th appearance for Liverpool.
Firmino made his 300th appearance for Liverpool in the 3-2 win over Atletico Madrid
Firmino and Diogo Jota linked up strongly as Liverpool ran riot at Old Trafford on Sunday
Sunday’s United mauling also shows how there is room for the pair of them in Klopp’s starting line-up – it seems almost bizarre to suggest it considering how things turned out but the omission of Sadio Mane raised eyebrows before kick-off. Fabinho’s absence felt a big blow as well, while the inclusion of Ibrahima Konate ahead of Joel Matip was a surprise.
But with Firmino in his current form, he’s as much of a nailed-on starter as Salah. The two of them shared a moment of celebration by themselves on the Old Trafford pitch after applauding Liverpool’s fans and it was a moment they both deserved.
Salah’s hat-trick showed precisely why he is labelled the best player in the world at the moment and with Firmino laying the foundations that he does, there can’t be anyone else he’d rather be playing alongside.
Ronaldo could be forgiven for thinking the same thing.