Liverpool’s dramatic win over Tottenham at Anfield last weekend saw Jurgen Klopp again opt for his tried and trusted midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner for a big-game fixture.
Midfield has become the only debated area of Klopp’s side this season, with the defence now extremely settled and the front three, of course, well established.
Indeed, when team news is announced an hour before each fixture, the only area to look at is in midfield – and most often, especially for high-profile games, it’s the aforementioned trio who get the nod from the boss. Which means omitting one player that Liverpool fans are keen to see more of.
Fabinho’s impact from the bench against Spurs, when he replaced Henderson at the same time Divock Origi came on for Milner with 13 minutes remaining, was clear for all to see. Arguably, it was the turning point of the game.
The Brazilian brought quick, forward passing from midfield, and also won aerial duels in the central area. Those are the qualities that supporters like to see, and it's why he has become something of a fan favourite in recent months. He provides a presence and impetus that Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum often lack.
The trio are hard working, which Klopp clearly places a huge importance on, and work within the system whereby Klopp’s full-backs are his chief creators. But they offer very little goal threat – this season they have six league goals between them. Last season they'd netted just two league goals between them – despite a combined 92 league appearances. Henderson and Wijnaldum have one assist between them this season.
That lack of attacking output is one of the reasons why fans are keen for Fabinho to become a more integral part of the Reds’ midfield – he scored eight and assisted five from a deep-lying role at Monaco last season. The manager, though, has no such concerns, explaining how “the midfielders have slightly different jobs” due to using “our setup to our advantage and [the] use of the full backs”.
Interestingly, Fabinho has actually played slightly more minutes for Liverpool this season than captain Henderson – partly due to the latter’s frequent injury issues. The Champions League second leg at Bayern Munich offered a recent example, when Henderson departed early on and Fabinho put in one of his best performances since arriving last summer.
That game in Bavaria and Fabinho’s impact against Tottenham perhaps show why Klopp is happy to have him as a substitute in big games. You could argue that he is more likely to have an impact from the bench than if the manager brought on Milner, Henderson or Wijnaldum similarly.
Asked about Fabinho’s impact from the bench post-Tottenham, Klopp acknowledged the No.3’s play but also noted that it's “the plan” with substitutes, saying: “If you bring on a sub, they have to make an impact.”
It’s rare that a so-called defensive midfielder can come on and have such an impact as Fabinho has done.
A superb explanation of Fabinho came from Liverpool assistant boss Pepijn Lijnders earlier this year, with the coach depicting his 6ft 2in Brazilian as the “lighthouse” in the side.
“Inside the ‘organised chaos’ that we want, that we like, he is like a lighthouse, he controls it,” said the Dutchman. “His timing, his vision, his calmness, it gives another dimension to our midfield player.”
It’s that idea of Fabinho as the tall, calming presence while the storm rages around him that epitomises why fans want him in the side. They want a calming influence who can snap into tackles, play forward passes and win aerial balls without making a fuss.
“He controls everything amid what can sometimes be footballing chaos,” says supporter Henry Jackson. “He brings a sense of calm to the team and is the most tactically astute midfielder the Reds have. His aerial prowess, positional sense and use of the ball are all top class.”
Another reason Liverpool fans are so eager for Fabinho to start is that many fans feel a proper ‘DM’ is what the club have lacked since the departure of Javier Mascherano in 2010. This was a particular area of contention while Liverpool’s previously porous defence was leaking goals and lacked protection in front of them.
Supporter Joel Rabonowitz notes some of the similarities between the two. “Fabinho's defensive positional sense to break up play and make key tackles and interceptions is better than any other Liverpool midfielder, and his range of passing contributes significantly to build up play,” he told FFT.
Speaking on Premier League Today, The Telegraph’s Jason Burt noted: “You speak to people who cover Liverpool all the time and that's the one player they wonder why he's not starting more games.
“Klopp has this kind of default midfield of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum, which he tends to use in big games. I personally think they’ve reached the stage where Fabinho is almost the first name on the team sheet in midfield.”
In supporters’ eyes, that might be the case, but for now Klopp will continue to be patient, knowing that the process will be worth it. And perhaps the fruits of that will only be plucked once Naby Keita is similarly integrated into the midfield at Anfield, which appears to have always been the long-term vision and plan.
Ultimately, as Burt surmises: “Henderson is more replaceable than Fabinho.”
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