Liverpool could be without the talismanic Roberto Firmino as they welcome Watford to Anfield this week before making the short trip across Stanley Park to face Everton days later.
As title race tension mounts and Manchester City look ready to take advantage of any slip ups, will Liverpool be able to cope without the man who defines them?
It’s now widely acknowledged that Firmino is vital to the way Liverpool play. Even if he’s not on the best run of form or isn’t putting in the most aesthetically pleasing displays, the Brazilian is plays an important part in making sure the rest of the team can perform, even if he can’t.
He often does perform, though, and is a technically gifted, inventive player with an expert touch. This can sometimes go under the radar now his contribution to Liverpool’s structure and style is beginning to be appreciated.
He is no Sergio Aguero, he won’t be bagging two hat-tricks in a week or regularly piling up the points in Fantasy Football, but he’s as important to Liverpool as Aguero is to Manchester City, if not more so, and you’d imagine Pep Guardiola wouldn’t mind him in his side either.
That said, he reached double figures for goals in both the Premier League and Champions League last season, and has done so in each of his league campaigns since arriving at the club. He’s only one off double figures this season, despite operating as an attacking midfielder behind Mohamed Salah on a number of occasions.
Salah is not the same type of centre forward, and though he is as adept as anyone at applying the counter-pressing tactics, particularly the part after the ball has been won, he’s not Firmino.
Even on the occasions Salah plays up front, Firmino isn’t far behind him. Doing the defensive work, defining Liverpool’s shape, defining their style of football. He leads from the front and without him there will be a different dynamic.
The 27-year-old is one of Liverpool’s most reliable players. He rarely misses games through injury, so the problem of replacing what he brings to the team isn’t one they’re used to solving.
His resilience is such that Jurgen Klopp believes he might even have a chance to play in the upcoming game against Watford, despite picking an ankle injury at the weekend.
“It looks good, obviously we were lucky and it’s not as serious as first thought,” said the Liverpool manager.
“It will be close for tomorrow, but a big chance for the derby. Because it’s Bobby I would say yes, he has a chance.”
If he doesn’t start against Watford, Klopp will have to look elsewhere to replace what he brings to the side.
Klopp on filling the void if Firmino misses Watford: “There’s still a lot of quality. We have options.”
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) February 26, 2019
The club’s other strikers, Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi, are talented in their own way, but are not in the same mould as Firmino. This will show if one of them starts in his place, and did so when Sturridge replaced him against Manchester United and was unable to affect the game in defence or attack.
The players replacing what Firmino brings to the side are more likely to emerge from the midfield ranks.
Firmino himself can often be seen in the middle of the park, creating a diamond formation from the 4-3-3 as Salah and Sadio Mane advance ahead of him creating a 4-4-2.
It’s vital that Naby Keita comes back into the side after missing out against Man United — a game which seemed made for him but one in which Jurgen Klopp chose to be more conservative, even against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s depleted ranks.
The Guinean has been suffering with illness, but was back in training ahead of the midweek game.
Keita, along with the reliable Georginio Wijnaldum, will need to do the defensive work in central attacking areas, playing behind the striker and ahead of the anchor, Fabinho, while the wide players pressure opponents or lurk ready to counter-attack.
Opponents Watford have the potential to provide a difficult test when they visit Anfield this week, while the subsequent game against Everton at Goodison Park could be an awkward one for Klopp’s side at this stage of the season.
Five of the last six meetings between the Merseyside rivals at Goodison Park have ended in draws, but Liverpool are desperate for a win to maintain their one point lead ahead of Manchester City at the top of the table. It could be an uncomfortable afternoon for the red half of Liverpool next Sunday.
But first they need to overcome a Watford side who are, on the face of it, better than Everton. They lead the way among clubs below the top six and have players who can cause Liverpool problems.
Keita and Wijnaldum will need to stop Hornets attacks at source, helping their side win the ball back early and transition from defence to attack in the blink of an eye. This is when Liverpool are at their most dangerous.
Firmino is usually vital for this, lurking in the shadows in the opponent’s half, waiting to pounce, but in his absence other players could show their worth.
It would be tempting to go back to the 4-2-3-1, but the 4-3-3 would offer the chance of a five man attacking press with support from the holding midfielder and the two full-backs.
The pairing of WIjnaldum and Keita as free eights could compensate for the lack of Firmino. Salah could operate up top as Aguero does for Man City with dual attacking midfielders behind him leading the press.
Without Firmino Liverpool aren’t quite Liverpool, but being something else for a couple of games could refresh their style and help their quest to win the title for the first time in the Premier League era.