Lincoln Masterclass Shows Takumi Minamino is the Roberto Firmino Alternative Liverpool Have Been Waiting for

25 September 2020 03:30

When Danny Higginbotham named Curtis Jones as Sky Sports' man of the match in Liverpool's remarkable 7-2 win over Lincoln City, a few eyebrows were raised among those watching at home.

Not that Jones, having delivered another astonishing performance, wasn't a worthy contender. His two first-half goals were beautiful, and with Steven Gerrard's former number on his back, he stood out in a midfield littered with more experienced stars.

But while the fuzzy-haired Scouser was once again excellent in the engine room, he hadn't been the best player on the pitch. Most of us were in agreement that that was Takumi Minamino.

As the team took shape in the early stages of the EFL Cup tie, it wasn't plainly clear where the Japanese enigma was actually playing. Even for a team accustomed to the falsest of false nines, Minamino's starting positions, often deep in the midfield third, were deceiving.

Lincoln couldn't figure it out either. His unpredictable movement left their central defenders with no idea who to mark, while Liam Bridcutt, whose role was fixed at the base of midfield, was reluctant to be drawn out of position.

The problems this caused were evident in the second goal; Timothy Eyoma and Lewis Montsoma were so preoccupied with an inverted run from Divock Origi that they failed to even notice Minamino, in yards of space around the 20-yard line, who eventually curled in a peach.

His second goal, early in the second half, came from a similar position. Minamino watched a promising attack from a safe distance, before arriving late to pounce on a loose ball and stylishly convert number five.

It has long been touted that Jürgen Klopp sees 'Taki' as a long-term replacement for Roberto Firmino, and here we saw why. While he lacks the pressing intensity and raw work rate of the Brazilian, he carries a similar ability to bring wide attackers into the game. He and Origi were telepathic in a way that brought to mind Firmino's interactions with Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah, as Minamino's smokescreen movement gave the Belgian the platform to freely drift inside.

Liverpool with Minamino look different to Liverpool with Firmino, but not in a way that necessitates a dramatic change to the 4-3-3 setup. They can keep the same basic shape, but Minamino, while less of an imposing presence, can more naturally drop into midfield, which then allows that trio to take on greater attacking responsibility.

It's no coincidence that Klopp felt comfortable playing Shaqiri in a deeper role for the first time, or that Jones attacked the box with more frequency than any Liverpool midfielder has this season. Those were options unlocked by Minamino's intelligence and dexterity.

Diogo Jota was handed his debut from the bench, and his availability as cover in the wide areas means that we should now be seeing more and more of Minamino as a false nine. In the long run, beyond the tenure of Mané, Firmino and Salah, it may be that combination - along with Elliott, Origi or any new signing (not Kylian Mbappé) - who will define the Reds' attack.

Of course, we shouldn't get carried away with a victory over Lincoln. The last 16 tie with Arsenal - which takes place the same time next week - should be a greater test of Minamino's 'mini-Firmino' credentials.

A show-stealing performance on the small stage, however, should give him the momentum boost he needs to take the next step, and eradicate any remaining doubts over the role he will play going forward.

Source: 90min