Tuesday 15 October 2019

Firmino growing into 'Cantona role' in giving Reds perfect balance

Liverpool's Roberto Firmino. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Liverpool's Roberto Firmino. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Chris Bascombe

It all looked familiar to Steve Bruce. For Anfield in 2019 read Old Trafford in the mid-nineties, opponents not exactly beaten before the visitors' bus makes its final turn towards the stadium, but concession speeches cautiously rehearsed.

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool do not have the Premier League titles of Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. Yet they certainly have the same aura of near invincibility on their own turf - that strutting authority that comes with knowing you can withstand an early punch, restore your balance and win comfortably, as they did in beating Newcastle United 3-1 on Saturday.

Whether opponents have shown ambition and stuck to tried-and-trusted principles - such as Norwich City on the opening weekend - or spent the preceding week tweaking their system to defend a surprise lead like Newcastle in the first 25 minutes, the outcome has been similar for two and a half years.

"You have to find a way when you know a team is far better than you," said Bruce, Newcastle's manager, who acknowledged another resemblance to the great United side in which he became a legend.

If Roberto Firmino lifted his collar he would be a ringer for Eric Cantona. The Brazilian's flamboyant assists give the impression playing the game blindfolded would be a mere hindrance to his uncanny ability to locate Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.

"Cantona is as good a player as I've ever seen. I haven't seen Firmino week in week out like that, but just when you see what he gives them, it's a perfect balance, and Cantona gave us that," Bruce said.

Four years ago, Firmino played as a winger at Old Trafford, replaced by Jordon Ibe after inadvertently provoking another series of critical articles about Liverpool's transfer policy. It was inconceivable he would become the Anfield blend of Jari Litmanen and Luis Suarez - and symbol of his club's recruiters' eye for talent - that he is today.

Now, keeping him on the bench to start with Divock Origi is akin to turning up at a Broadway show to find the understudy rather than Hollywood A-lister. The sympathy for Origi when he twisted an ankle after 36 minutes disguised the audience's relief that the Brazilian was arriving.

Firmino won the ball, passed to Mane and Liverpool were ahead, having earlier cancelled out Jetro Willems's blast into the top corner. He had been on for two minutes.

If Firmino is the early front-runner as the Premier League's stand-out player, compatriot Fabinho is not far behind, his mastery of the toe-poke tackle to snuff out counter-attacks worthy of a trademark.

There is a visible evolution in Klopp's side typified in the midfielder, who has been as transformative in the heart of the team as Virgil van Dijk at the back. When Liverpool lost in Naples in the group stages of last season's Champions League, Fabinho was a late substitute adjusting to the specific demands of Klopp's system. He will return to Italy this week in control of his team's drum stick, dictating when they should indulge in up-tempo, freestyle jazz or impose an easy-listening rhythm. Fabinho is too cool to drift into the heavy metal riffs once associated with Klopp.

If the famed front three terrifies defenders - Mane's double and Salah's usual Anfield goal reaffirmed their superb start to the season - then attackers expected to get beyond the twin towers of Fabinho and Van Dijk must be no less daunted. The victory means Klopp's side already have a five-point lead at the top.

Liverpool's coach accepted Bruce's compliments with the hint of a smile - possibly wondering how politically astute it is to embrace comparisons to a great Manchester United team. But he knows better than anyone the difficulties his adversaries face. No Liverpool side has looked so formidable, so finely-tuned in each position and so prepared to extend a record-breaking winning sequence so soon into a Premier League season.

"If we are playing our football, if we use our potential, if we have a top attitude, then we are a difficult team to play against," Klopp said. "That is what we all created together here. That is why we had the results we had. It is not one reason. Or two. Or three."


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