Roberto Firmino: Liverpool's no-look Brazilian magician, made in the Bundesliga
Liverpool's Roberto Firmino may be known as a typical Brazilian entertainer with a knack of scoring no-look goals, but those talents were first fine-tuned to the European game in Germany.
bundesliga.com looks back at the four-and-a-half seasons Firmino spent at Hoffenheim that shaped him into the world-class footballer he is today.
2011/12: The first steps
There is very little that is Brazilian about Hoffenheim, but the Sinsheim outfit has had a fruitful connection with South America's finest purveyor of footballing talent. Maicosuel and Carlos Eduardo had just left the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, while compatriots Luiz Gustavo and Wellington were still there when Firmino stepped across the Atlantic Ocean in January 2011, a bucktoothed teenager who — after impressing at Figueirense — had convinced Hoffenheim he was worth a €4 million gamble.
Not that the club felt they were betting big with owner Dietmar Hopp's cash.
"We're happy to have signed a Brazilian talent for our team," explained sporting director Ernst Tanner at the time. "We'll give him time to acclimatise as he has great qualities as an attacker."
Teething problems might have been expected — change of culture, language and country, nevermind continent — but appropriately for a player discovered by a dentist, there were none.
Three goals in his first five starts in the Bundesliga gave a hint of the potential packed within Firmino's wiry frame, and a flurry of four strikes and an assist in the opening six matches of his first full top-flight season in Germany left fans and pundits drooling.
Expectations were not met, however, as just three more league goals followed in the remainder of the 2011/12 campaign.
2012/13: Testing times
As a child growing up in the violence and poverty that were the soundtrack to his hometown, Maceio, Firmino had helped his family sell coconuts on the beach to make ends meet. A setback or two in the professional game was not going to stop him.
Which is good, because the 2012/13 campaign had many.
It started badly — with a DFB Cup exit to a fourth-tier amateur side — and got worse, despite the likes of Tim Wiese, Andreas Beck, Sebastian Rudy and Kevin Volland all featuring in a squad that looked good on paper, but was ugly to watch on the pitch.
Four coaches — Markus Babbel, Frank Kramer, Marco Kurz and Markus Gisdol — all sat in a dug-out as the 'Exit' door at in Sinsheim whirred round at breakneck speed.
Though he found the net just five times in 33 painful league encounters, Firmino still managed to emerge with his reputation enhanced, scoring two and setting up the other in the 3-1 play-off first-leg win over Kaiserslautern that paved the way for Hoffenheim to secure their top-flight status.
2013/14: The breakthrough
After bubbling under among the Bundesliga's 'next big things', Firmino himself sensed something special was coming. "I have the feeling this season that I have come into it right," he said after a stunning Matchday 2 display in which he had a hand in all his team's goals in a 5-1 schooling of Hamburg. "I feel more comfortable than in a long time, I feel liberated."
Under Gisdol, the shackles were off, and Firmino was going to live his new-found freedom to the max. And boy, oh boy, did he? Like a groom-to-be on his stag do, Firmino — coming up to his 22nd birthday — cut very, very loose.
Watch: Firmino's breakout season in the Bundesliga
Bundesliga defenders were the ones left with hangovers, though, as the Hoffenheim man ran amok, smashing 16 goals and grabbing 11 assists with only Borussia Dortmund pair Robert Lewandowski and Marco Reus involved in more Bundesliga strikes that season.
"Our way of playing fits me like a glove," he explained as Hoffenheim struck 72 times — only outscored by champions Bayern Munich and runners-up Dortmund — and conceded 70 in a gung-ho season. "I love that style, it makes me even stronger."
2014/15: The finished article
It seems Firmino did not pull off a no-look signature when he inked a contract extension through to 2017 in March 2014, but the Brazilian was destined never to see the end of the deal anyway.
He did, however, give his signature finish its Bundesliga premiere in the 1-1 draw with Werder Bremen on Matchday 2 en route to seven Bundesliga goals and ten assists that season before Liverpool arrived with an offer that gave Hoffenheim a healthy eight-fold return on their initial investment.
The club had put much more into Firmino though. Not only were Liverpool getting a potent goaltaker and maker, they were also signing a versatile attacker that had developed into a fully-fledged Brazil international who, in addition to being a flair player, had learned to love the less glamourous side of the beautiful game.
"If he loses the ball, he fights for it back. If he loses it again, he fights for it. He looks like the engine of the team," said Jürgen Klopp of Firmino at Liverpool, who are reaping the benefits of the philosophy he learned by — and took to — heart in Sinsheim.
"He's the kind of player that likes the ball at his feet and to do nice things with it, but something he learned in Germany was how to work without the ball and defend," former Hoffenheim team-mate and ex-Liverpool man Ryan Babel explained when Firmino moved to Anfield.
"I know how important that is in England, what you do without the ball. It was something he had to learn in Germany."
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