Long before the poet Horace wrote the words “carpe diem”, Dunga said them first. You see, in a previous life, Dunga was a Roman Centurion, noted as much for his disdain of the papyrus tabloid writers of the day as for his prowess at winning battles.

Dunga Carpe Diem

The modern-day Dunga has always loved those who seize the day – those players who, when given a chance to represent their country, seize the opportunity by the throat and squeeze. It’s both a strength and a weakness in him. A strength because it incentivizes players to give the maximum amount of effort whenever they don the yellow shirt. A weakness because it leads directly to Dunga’s love affair with first impressions…a love that can lead to inexplicable decisions down the road.

But this article isn’t about Dunga. It’s about a player who has recently seized the day, not just once, but thrice. I’m talking, of course, about Roberto Firmino Barbosa de Oliveira.[1]

Since coming on as a second half substitute against Austria last November, Firmino has played a decisive role in each of the three matches he’s featured in thus far. The result: a ticket to Chile and a likely starting spot at the Copa America. Not bad for a player who was largely unknown outside of Germany only twelve months ago.

Let’s take a look at what exactly Firmino has done, and what it means for Brazil’s future.

Firmino vs Austria

Firmino’s debut technically came against Turkey a few days earlier, but he only had 17 minutes to impress in what was already a runaway victory. As a result, there was little to glean from his performance.

Firmino came on much earlier against Austria. The fact that Dunga inserted Firmino in the 62nd minute of what was a tightly contested match says something in itself – Dunga’s substitutions are generally very conservative, especially when the game’s outcome is in doubt. Perhaps Dunga was simply looking to insert some energy and hunger into what was otherwise a lethargic display …or perhaps he had already seen something from Firmino in training that impressed him.

Either way, Firmino wasted no time in reviving Brazil’s moribund attack. Within only a minute or two of coming on, he played a minor but important role in the move that led to David Luiz’s goal. Receiving a chipped pass from Fernandinho, Firmino controlled the ball deftly with his first touch and then passed laterally to Douglas Costa with his second. Costa then spread the ball wide to Neymar who drove forward. The end result was a corner (which Oscar delivered onto the head of David Luiz) but the point is that it was a quick, incisive build-up. Keep those two words, quick and incisive, in mind, because they’ll become important later.

David Luiz scored and Brazil went up 1-0. A few minutes later, Firmino exchanged a series of passes with Neymar – who looked suddenly invigorated, something that we’ll explore more later on – and found space to fire a shot from the edge of the box. It was deflected, but it was also a presentiment of what was to come.

Austria would equalize not long afterwards, but Brazil still looked better after Firmino came on. They began circulating the ball somewhat better, but were too often let down by uninspired decision making in the final third.

That is, until the 83rd minute, when Firmino seized the day in a big way.

It started when Neymar received the ball near the edge of the center circle. With Austria’s attentions all focused on him (we’ll return to this thought, too) Filipe Luis found the space to drift inwards. Neymar fired a pass to the left-back, who collected and then centered to Firmino while Neymar continued his run.

Most players would probably have tried to play Neymar in at this point. It may well have been a higher percentage option, but Firmino had something else in mind. With no hesitation, he took two steps forward and scored an absolute peach of a goal. Dunga’s smile from the touchline had a tinge of self-satisfaction, almost as if he had planned the whole thing from the start.

All in all, Firmino’s performance was hardly dominant, but he did bring a subtle shift in tempo to the match, and when his big chance came, he took it. No wonder Dunga looked so pleased.

Firmino vs France

Firmino was rewarded with a start against France four months later. In many ways, this was the Seleção’s best performance since the World Cup. Oscar put in a vintage shift, Willian had a masterful second half, Neymar scored a vital goal, and the team as a whole showed a commitment to short, quick passes that we don’t often see.

Firmino, on the other hand, had a slow start. On several occasions, Neymar’s gravity drew multiple French defenders onto him, allowing Firmino to find space in the final third. Unfortunately, his decision-making was subpar. A diagonal pass to Willian was woefully under-hit. An attempted dummy over a Filipe cross was clever but naïve and a quick turn on the ball would have served him better. When Neymar set Firmino up with even more time and space to shoot than he had against Austria, from almost the exact same position, he took too long to pull the trigger and the chance went begging.

After 25 minutes, however, Firmino began to find his sea-legs. In the 29th minute, Neymar sucked in the French defense and laid the ball off to the Hoffenheim man. This time, Firmino repented of his earlier hesitation and took the shot quickly, stinging Mandanda’s palms. Five minutes later, Neymar again drew the French toward him and laid off to Firmino. A quick croqueta almost enabled Firmino to penetrate enemy lines, but he couldn’t quite beat the last defender.

Then, in the 40th minute…

It happened like this. Filipe centered to Oscar, who slid the ball laterally to Firmino. Firmino showed great strength to hold off Matuidi – no mean feat – and even greater composure to prod a return pass through Varane’s legs. Oscar toe-poked the finish home in signature style[2] and Brazil never looked back.

Firmino didn’t really impact the game much after that. One or two attempted thru-balls that didn’t quite make it through and few one-touch passes were his only remaining contributions. Still, he lasted till the 88th minute before being substituted, having been responsible for perhaps the game’s single greatest moment of quality.

Firmino vs Chile

Sadly, Firmino went back to the bench for the Chile match. It’s a shame, because it would have been interesting to see how he would have coped with 90 minutes against Brazil’s toughest opposition to date. As it happens, he didn’t make an appearance until the 60th minute, by which time Chile’s ultra-high pressing began to wane.

Firmino didn’t look particularly sharp at first, overcooking a number of passes. But once again, he seized his big chance. In the 72nd minute, Chile’s formation finally opened up. Firmino found himself free inside a massive breach in the Chilean backline and called for the ball instantly. Danilo spotted his run and rewarded it accordingly. One assured touch allowed Firmino to round Claudio Bravo in fine Ronaldo-esque style, and a cheeky no-look finish gave Brazil the victory.

mepezConclusion

So what have we seen from Roberto Firmino so far?

Back in 2014, I openly wondered what kind of a player Firmino was. I had only watched him a handful of times with Hoffenheim and each time came away wondering: “How good is he, really? What position does he actually play? What skills can he consistently bring to the table?”

I still don’t entirely know the answers to those questions. For his club, he plays in a kind of Rivaldo-esque role: neither pure #10 nor rigid #9, but occupying a gray area between the two. It’s become fashionable to describe such players as “false nines”, but when you compare him to how Messi or even Neymar would function in that role, he doesn’t really look similar at all. To repeat, Rivaldo – or even Kaka – might be a better comparison. Firmino strikes me as a similar sort of “auxiliary attacker” whose only requirement is to read what the defense is giving and respond appropriately. In other words, he must be able to do a little of a lot.

For Brazil, Firmino has yet to put in a complete – let alone dominant – performance. In fairness to him, three games is a small sample size, and he’s only once played more than 30 minutes. That said, watching his last three matches with a more critical eye has revealed the following:

  1. Firmino can go long stretches without impacting the game. The BBC’s Tim Vickery likes to say that Brazil as a whole can only beat you on moments, never on flow. The same has been true for Firmino thus far. He’s produced some outstanding moments of pure quality, but in the overall flow of the game, he can look fairly anonymous.
  2. Firmino’s passing needs to improve. His assist against France was excellent, but he misplaces a lot of passes, many of them rather inexplicably. That said, it’s important to note that I see no problem with his vision. He consistently picks out the right pass, but has not yet shown a consistent ability to execute it. (More on this in a moment.) The good news is that I don’t think there’s any fundamental flaw with his passing; he just needs to settle in and get comfortable.
  3. To truly become a star, Firmino will need to become more aggressive at calling for the ball. Right now he spends a bit too much time passively waiting for teammates to pass rather than signal them to do so. If Dunga really does see him as a false nine, this is a must. Because a false nine’s job is to drop deep and drag defenders out of position, he cannot afford to be passive. Otherwise, defenders will take no notice of his movement.
  4. Statistically speaking, Firmino is one of the best dribblers in Europe. We’ve yet to see that dribbling for Brazil. I would like to see him attempt at least two or three take-on’s per game from this point on ward. With Neymar absent for the next two friendlies, it will be interesting to see what he does.

Of course, there are a lot of positives to take, too.

  1. Earlier on, I emphasized the words “quick” and “incisive.” The “incisive” part still needs work, but one thing that can’t be denied is Firmino’s quick decision-making. He doesn’t linger on the ball, is more than comfortable playing one-touch passes, and rarely takes a touch too many. For the most part, you know that Brazil’s build-ups will be quicker whenever he’s involved. This is an incredibly welcome development.
  2. Firmino’s first touch is very good. Whereas Jo’s was awkward, Hulk’s was heavy, and Fred’s was clumsy, Firmino’s first touch is both assured and proactive.
  3. I mentioned that Firmino’s passing has been subpar. His eye for the pass, however, has been good. Even when misplacing a pass, you can still count on him to at least pick the best option. Generally speaking, his passing is optimistic but not overly ambitious; prudent but not overly conservative. He identifies when a teammate is in space and passes accordingly.
  4. While they’ve yet to combine in a meaningful way, early signs point to a fruitful partnership between Neymar and Firmino. In basketball, many analysts like to calculate a player’s gravity on the court. In other words, how much attention do they draw? How much are opponents forced to double or even triple team them?

A similar concept exists in football. It should come as no surprise that Neymar’s gravitational pull is extremely high, especially for Brazil. The result is that he can occupy the attentions of multiple defenders and drag Firmino’s marker away.[3] This allows teammates to find Firmino in space. Once he receives the ball, Firmino’s versatility and good first touch allows him to choose from a menu of options. Shoot from distance? Dribble into the box? Play a teammate in? Firmino can do all of these things.

  1. Carpe diem. The single best thing about Firmino thus far is his ability to rise to the occasion and shine in big moments. This more than anything else should earn him favored son status with Dunga. Given that Brazil has relied almost exclusively on Neymar to deliver in the clutch, having a second option will be absolutely key.

All in all, the jury is still out on Firmino. The early signs are promising, but I need to see more. It makes me a little uneasy to know that if his shot against Austria had struck the bar, or if Oscar had missed his toe-poke against France, Firmino may well have been dropped. He’s provided Brazil with some outstanding moments…but can he turn those moments into sustained stretches of dominance?

Stay tuned.


 

[1] Fun fact: Roberto Firmino shares my mother’s last name! As do tens of thousands of other people, but still.

[2] Oscar’s toe-poke finishes have truly become a specialty of sorts. Side note: there has never been a greater toe-poker in the history of the game than Romario. Yes, toe-poker is the technical term.

[3] There are a lot of things I’d like Neymar to learn from Messi. One of those things is the ability to suck defenders in and then play a teammate through with a diagonal pass.  Neymar has been the beneficiary of many such passes this season.