Fabinho: When do we worry about Liverpool’s missing man?
Towards the end of last month, Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson was asked about his struggle to break into Liverpool’s first team last season. Having been signed in the summer to replace the calamitous Alberto Moreno, Robertson only made two Premier Leagues before December 30.
"It was hard at the time as I wasn’t used to not playing and it was something very new to me. I didn't deal with it as well as I could," Robertson told FourFourTwo. "I did struggle, and I was probably not the best to live with in the house, but it’s hard because you’re putting on a brave face on the training ground thinking you need to work hard to get in the team. But when you come home and start thinking about it, getting annoyed and frustrated, it goes into your family life."
Robertson eventually proved himself. By the end of January he was a fixture in the Liverpool team; one of the stars of their run to the Champions League final. Last month, he was named captain of his country at the age of 24. Klopp’s initial plan may have caused annoyance and frustration, but it worked.
One year on
Twelve months later, a similar situation. In the week that followed the Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid, Liverpool’s mood was lifted by the signing of Fabinho from Monaco. With Emre Can destined for Juventus, Klopp had secured an upgrade before the transfer window had officially opened. Almost five months later, Fabinho has still not played a Premier League minute.
Robertson’s own experience is used to shut down any argument that we should be worried by Fabinho’s absence. With the left-back flourishing following his long wait, you can see why – the same will surely happen to Fabinho.
Just as understandable is Liverpool supporters backing Klopp’s judgement to the hilt. He has a number of central midfield options, making for stronger strength in depth than any other manager in the division has for that position. James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum have started the season in excellent form. This is no disaster.
But just because Robertson recovered from his slow start does not decree that there are no questions to answer over Fabinho. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson were all signed by Klopp; none of them suffered the same extended wait for regular football. If by Robertson’s own admission he was miserable during those first few months as a Liverpool player, surely the absent Brazilian feels the same? And if so, how can we know that he will respond as positively?
Questions without answers
There are differences between Robertson and Fabinho. The latter cost almost six times as much as the former, had international caps for Brazil and had started in a Champions League semi-final before arriving at Anfield. For all his potential, Robertson was signed for £8m from a Championship club. It’s hardly outlandish to suggest that Fabinho might have less patience than him.
An acclimatisation period is no bad thing. The Premier League has a different intensity to Ligue 1, and its football is played with a unique timbre. Fabinho must also get to grips with Klopp’s training methods, known to be among the most demanding in the division. But then Fabinho couldn’t have enjoyed a better preparation for this season: he had a full pre-season and didn’t travel to Russia for the World Cup.
The training issue is interesting, not least because it’s been used as the most likely explanation for Klopp’s reticence to give Fabinho a chance. And yet when Liverpool announced the signing, the Brazilian’s attitude in training was referred to specifically by Klopp as a reason for the deal.
“We have signed a fantastic player, but someone who is an equally fantastic person I think,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website on May 29. “His reputation as a character in the dressing room and his attitude in training has come through from everyone we speak to.”
The other growing question is whether Fabinho’s presence in Liverpool’s first team might help Naby Keita to flourish at Anfield. Keita’s displays this season have been solid but unspectacular. If the intention was that he might be the all-action roaming midfielder to link midfield and the front three, it hasn’t quite turned out that way yet. But without a physical, tackling presence in central midfield, is Keita not being stymied by Fabinho’s absence? Klopp’s reticence to drop captain Jordan Henderson could be having a knock-on effect.
Fabinho’s situation is certainly evidence of a growing general trend among Premier League clubs, aided by their ever-deeper pockets. Even three years ago, a big-money signing would automatically walk straight into a Premier League starting XI. The finances involved would dictate as much.
That’s no longer the case. Fabinho is being kept waiting at Liverpool, but he isn’t alone. Leander Dendoncker hasn’t even made the matchday squad at Wolves following his move from Anderlecht, while Caglar Soyuncu is in the same position at Leicester. Yerry Mina is yet to play for Everton (albeit partly due to injury issues), Florin Andone is yet to play for Brighton and Sergio Rico yet to play for Fulham. If Bernd Leno is now in the Arsenal team, that’s only due to Petr Cech’s injury. The depth of Premier League squads is such that joining with a high profile for a significant transfer fee means nothing.
But that probably doesn’t make Fabinho feel much better. In his first interview as a Liverpool player, he spoke of “having no difficulty adapting” to English football and being “anxious” to play at Anfield as soon as possible.
Close to five months later, that anxiety remains. Liverpool supporters are not panicking. The same might not be true of the man with his nose pressed against the glass watching his new team-mates perform.