World Cup 2018

Should Firmino start ahead of Jesus for Brazil?

 • by Matt Gault
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Tite has the kind of problem every World Cup manager dreams of; options.

And Brazil’s head coach has plenty of them.

In Liverpool transfer target Alisson and Ederson of Manchester City, he has two excellent goalkeepers. Marquinhos, Miranda and Thiago Silva offer experience and solidity at the back, while Paulinho, Renato Augusto, Casemiro, Fernandinho and Manchester United newboy Fred make up a formidable looking midfield pack.

But of all Tite’s selection headaches, perhaps the one forcing him into the deepest deliberations is up front. If, as expected, the manager opts to go with a 4-3-3, Neymar is guaranteed to start on the left, with Philippe Coutinho likely taking up the slot on the opposite flank.

That leaves two main contenders for the central striking role; Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino.

It is a reflection of Brazil’s attacking depth that the latter, despite scoring 27 goals and notching 14 assists to help Liverpool to the Champions League final, cannot nail down a starting berth.

Tite, under whom Brazil have lost just once in two years, has traditionally preferred Jesus up front but there have been increasing calls for the 57-year-old to opt for the Reds favourite instead.

Who deserves to start in Brazil’s glittering attacking line-up? Let’s have a look.

Different perceptions

Firmino and Jesus have bolstered their reputations at Liverpool and Manchester City respectively. The Merseysider’s No.9 has developed brilliantly under Jürgen Klopp at Anfield and, alongside Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, forms one of the most potent attacking trios in world football.

Jesus is only 21 but has found the net regularly since moving to City from Palmeiras in January 2017. With 20 goals in 39 Premier League appearances, he has already established himself as one of the deadliest finishers in English football and seems the perfect heir to Sergio Agüero at the Etihad Stadium.

Firmino and Jesus are adored by their club’s fans. However, in Brazil, it’s a different story. Well, for Firmino at least.

Jesus is the new golden boy of Brazilian football. His story has resonated with the football-loving country. Reared in Jardim Peri, an impoverished favela outside Sao Paulo, Jesus was into várzea, grassroots football played on clay pitches, until as recently as 2012.

Less than five years later, he earned a move from Palmeiras to City, one of world football’s superpowers, with his goals helping them to the Premier League title this year.

With a rags-to-riches story and a deep connection to his humble beginnings – the tattoo on his forearm depicts a boy with a ball looking at his hometown favela – Jesus is loved by Brazil fans, some of whom believe he has the ability to emulate Ronaldo’s prolific World Cup exploits.

Firmino, despite forging a stellar reputation in Europe, has not been embraced in his native land quite as easily, even though his story draws parallels to Jesus’.

As a child, Firmino spent countless hours playing on the makeshift pitches of Trapiche, a favela of Maceio, a notoriously violent city on Brazil’s eastern coast.

He spent one season with Figueirense before joining Hoffenheim, with whom he made his name in Europe. Despite having scored 22 goals for the Bundesliga side in the 2013/14 season, many Brazil fans were unmoved by Firmino’s debut in October 2014.

Since then, the Liverpool forward has appeared a further 20 times. Jesus has already racked up 17 caps in half that time, so it’s clear who Tite has preferred.

Stats comparison

And it would be difficult to begrudge Tite for giving Jesus the nod. Whereas Firmino has netted six times in 21 caps, Jesus has already bagged ten in 17, including seven in the CONMEBOL World Cup 2018 qualifying.

Notably, Jesus topped the goals per 90 charts in South America’s qualifying with 0.79, edging out the likes of Lionel Messi (0.7) and Edinson Cavani (0.67).

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Jesus’ goals per 90 ratio even edged his own average of 0.7 for City in the Premier League. The 21-year-old capped his World Cup preparations with a finely-taken goal in the 3-0 win over Austria on Sunday.

With his excellent movement and poacher’s instinct, Jesus seems like a natural fit in between Neymar and Coutinho, but there is a strong argument to be made for Firmino, too.

The 26-year-old has looked in recent games every bit the player fresh from his best season to date at club level, scoring in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Croatia at Anfield at the start of the month.

Not only did Firmino strike 15 times in the Premier League, his Champions League haul of 10 was bettered only by Cristiano Ronaldo. With seven assists and a goal every 106 minutes though, Firmino was undeniably one of the competition’s standout performers.

Those displays during Liverpool’s run to Kiev highlighted Firmino as a proven big-game player, with goals in every knockout stage up to the final against Porto, Manchester City and Roma. In contrast, Jesus, who started for City in the quarter-final first leg at Anfield, struggled in front of the Kop as his side lost 3-0. Both players, however, struck in the return leg at the Etihad.

It is worth pointing out, too, that Firmino developed a wonderfully productive understanding with Coutinho before the latter departed for Barcelona. Jesus, of course, has also revelled in playing with Coutinho at international level, but the former Firmino-Coutinho axis at Liverpool is perhaps something Tite may find difficult to ignore.

You can get a clear sense of how the two players perform for Brazil with Football Whispers’ exclusive Player Persona model below.

As you can see, Firmino hits more on-target shots but Jesus has proven himself as a more prolific goalscorer, while also missing fewer attempts at goal.

Tactically, both players are capable of carrying out the high press coached by Tite but, of course, we have seen how Firmino has become a fundamental part of Klopp’s pressing machine at Liverpool, with the forward typifying the Reds’ aggressive, hard-running style up top.

With 124, Firmino made 27 more tackles than any other forward in the Premier League last season and this ability to defend from the front is a quality that shouldn’t be so easily overlooked by his country’s management staff.

Despite Firmino’s impressive surge in form, doing just about everything in his power to muscle a way into the Brazil line-up, it’s probable that Tite will stick with Jesus for Brazil’s opener.

However, that happens to be against Switzerland, a notoriously tight and well-organised defensive unit. Should Jesus fail to prise the Swiss open, it could be Firmino’s time to stake his claim to be a Brazilian hero.

Considering how consistently he has delivered for Liverpool, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that, given the chance, Firmino could usurp Jesus at the head of Brazil’s attack.

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