With so much praise lavished upon Liverpool’s front three, with 23 goals scored so far this season, it can be easy to overlook the cogs working in the midfield behind them. The goal-scoring exploits of Sadio Mané, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino may grab the headlines, but in Fabinho Liverpool have the midfield steel to match the attacking flair up front.
The Brazilian has become a vital member of the Liverpool team – breaking up play with those long, searching legs, setting the tempo as he switches play to the two full-backs, and occasionally providing the attacking impetus from deep positions. Fabinho embodies all the best qualities of the archetypal defensive midfielder – tough tackling, crisp passing, and positional discipline.
It’s easy to forget that it took Fabinho quite a while to settle into the Liverpool team last season. Having arrived from Monaco for around £40 million, the midfielder struggled at first to adapt to the blood and thunder of the Premier League. But that lengthy settling in process has reaped dividends, as the 26-year-old now looks at home in the midfield of the Premier League’s current table-toppers.
October’s 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur showcased Fabinho at his best. He was a constant menace to the Spurs midfield and forward players, hassling the opposition at every turn. Indeed, as Liverpool took control of the game, Fabinho showed his attacking qualities – an ability to pick out passes from deep and dictate play.
An effective defensive midfield player is something Liverpool had craved for a long time before Fabinho’s arrival at the club. Lucas Leiva was a fan favourite for many years but lacked the mobility that Fabinho offers. Emre Can was a player whose attacking instincts meant he was not particularly suited to the holding role. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp had experimented with Jordan Henderson in defensive midfield, but there was always a feeling that playing Henderson in that position was a waste of his best attributes.
The arrival of Fabinho meant Liverpool had a defensive midfield specialist who fitted Jurgen Klopp’s style of play, which has been crucial to the Reds’ success since then. Fabinho was key in Liverpool’s remarkable 97-point haul in the Premier League last season and their Champions League triumph. The Brazilian gave a fine performance in the final against Spurs in Madrid, stifling the advances of Dele Alli and Heung Min-Son to help the Reds remain defensively resolute.
One of the main reasons Liverpool have enjoyed such success is that Klopp has improved the side by signing players such as Fabinho with the direct aim of strengthening one particular position. The arrivals of Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk shored up the goalkeeper and centre-half positions respectively, two areas where Liverpool had struggled for consistency in previous seasons. It is those simple improvements that have allowed the club to compete for major titles, and the signing of Fabinho was a big part of that growth as a team. It’s no surprise that Liverpool are among the favourites in this season’s Champions League odds once again.
Fabinho may not be the flashiest player to watch. His lanky, apparently languid style of play means he won’t win any awards for grace, but sometimes a team needs that slightly unorthodox player to provide some much-needed midfield strength. Look at N’Golo Kanté, a player whose shorter stature misrepresents the powerful, domineering presence he brings to a midfield. The same could be said of Nemanja Matić, whose best days at Chelsea were defined by a sort of lanky effectiveness that belied his apparent technical shortcomings.
In Fabinho, Liverpool have a player who now appears to be comfortable in his surroundings. He has overcome the initial difficulties to establish himself as a vital part of such an impressive team. The Brazilian has flourished in the confines of Anfield, allowing him to consign those poor early performances and lack of game time to the past.
“When I wasn’t playing the fans had a great attitude towards me,” Fabinho said in a Sunday Times interview. “They sent many messages, encouraging me to carry on, and this inspired me. So I am grateful to the fans here. I want to repay them on the pitch.” His fine displays in a red shirt in recent months have already gone a long way towards doing so.