Where would Liverpool be this season without Fabinho? It is plain for everyone to see. As soon as the Brazilian was hooked off at the end of the first half against FC Midtjylland last week, the Danish team were all over the Reds like a bad rash. The previously ineffectual Sory Kaba terrorized a young backline as the home side chased an equalizer first, and then a winner.
It says a lot about the qualities of a player when he is missed in a position where he is deputizing for someone else. His stock is rising fast in world football and Liverpool are reportedly in talks to extend his contract.
As fabulous as he has been in his new position, the team miss him in the centre of midfield. It was his signing in the summer of 2018 that transformed the way Jürgen Klopp’s side played; and for the better. Yes, Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker improved Liverpool tremendously at the back but the protection afforded to them by the midfield three played a big role in that. What has also not been stressed enough is the fact that while the goals dried up at the back, the Reds actually improved on their goal tally from that wild 2017-18 season.
For two seasons, Klopp got his squad to play with a level of control afforded to only the best teams in the world. They compressed the pitch further and further, increasingly suffocating their opponents and pegging them back in their own halves. And it was the Brazilian in the middle of the park who dictated the tempo of proceedings.
Things have unraveled fairly quickly this season. Players have dropped like flies all over the park and a lack of options at centre-back has prompted Klopp to move Fabinho there. This has meant that the manager has played whoever is available in midfield. Curtis Jones has found more game time than he would have ordinarily and Georginio Wijnaldum has been, well, Georginio Wijnaldum. Solid, reliable and indispensable.
As a number six though, while Jordan Henderson and Co. do passable imitations of the main act, they are not quite in the same league as Fabinho. Liverpool have not recycled possession in quite the same manner as they did in their pomp and this has affected every cog in the machine. It shows in the results. The Reds have only won four of their last nine games in all competitions.
In the Premier League, Klopp’s men have not won away from home since beating Chelsea in September. A 2-7 trashing at Villa Park preceded consecutive draws against Everton, Manchester City, Brighton and Fulham. Their Anfield form has spared Liverpool’s blushes, albeit unconvincingly at times. The fact that they find themselves at the top of the table owes much to the form of their main rivals, many of whom have been average themselves.
It is unclear if Klopp will move for a centre-back in January. They desperately need Fabinho back in midfield to navigate the back end of the season but if Thiago Alcantara is available in a few games’ time, Liverpool could have a ready-made solution in the Spaniard. He showed his unquestioned qualities in a very brief cameo against ten-man Chelsea before being taken out by Richarlison in the derby.
At the moment, the Reds are in a similar boat to Manchester City last season. The injury to Aymeric Laporte prompted Pep Guardiola to move Fernandinho to centre-back; in the process sacrificing his wares in a position they were needed more at. Rodri is still making his way in English football and he has not quite been able to impose his presence on games the way Fernandinho did for a couple of campaigns. His form this season will be pivotal to the Cityzens’ chances.
The other teams do not have players in a similar mould. While Tottenham may challenge for the title, they will do so on the basis of defensive solidity and a counter-attacking threat, which will not necessarily pay off in the long run. Liverpool and City are still the frontrunners, even after allowing for COVID-related anomalies.
For the Reds, the Fabinho-shaped hole in the middle of the park needs to be filled, however. They will continue to dominate matches at home, like they did against Spurs this week and good sides in Wolves and Leicester before that. It is in the away fixtures that Liverpool look vulnerable with the opposition willing to take the game to the champions.
Possibly bored with not being in the thick of action, the Brazilian made a rare foray deep into enemy territory in the eighty-second minute against Spurs. Jose Mourinho’s men had only made nineteen passes in the final third after all. Sensing that his team were in trouble with Tottenham pressing intensely on the wings, he casually played a couple of keepy-ups over two players before retreating back into position.
It was a brief but timely reminder of just what Fabinho offers further up the pitch from where he currently resides. He may yet turn into a world-class centre-back in time, but the Premier League No. 6 club will want their best player back soon.