Why Fabinho is the perfect player to make Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United tick
Manchester United have already snared Swedish centre-back Victor Lindelof, and will soon confirm the signing of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea. Yet despite the 28-year-old Serbian's imminent arrival, Jose Mourinho is still keen to bolster his defensive midfield options. It’s his targeting of Monaco’s Fabinho that has excited United fans the most – and with good reason.
Fabinho is the perfect man to add steel, protection and intelligence to this United side
The 23-year-old Brazilian played a crucial part in the club’s run to the Champions League semi-finals and first Ligue 1 title in 17 years, and has established himself out as one of the finest midfield anchors in Europe.
Of the midfielders still under consideration for a switch to Old Trafford this summer, Fabinho is the outstanding candidate; the perfect man to add steel, protection and intelligence to this United side, and who could free Paul Pogba up for the Frenchman to express himself further forward.
Destroyer vs playmaker
Traditionally, Mourinho has always operated with a destroyer at the base of his midfield: a player tactically disciplined and physically imposing, but cautious in possession and uninterested in getting forward.
At Porto he had Costinha; in his first spell at Chelsea it was Claude Makelele; at Inter it was Esteban Cambiasso; while Lassana Diarra played that role for his Real Madrid side.
Contrastingly, United have tended to use a deep-lying playmaker in this position, someone more concerned with dictating tempo and moving his team-mates around the pitch like the pieces on a chess board, rather than flying into tackles.
When the Old Trafford side moved away from what had been their customary 4-4-2 setup under Alex Ferguson in the early- to mid-2000s, captain Roy Keane often sat in front of the back four in a 4-3-3 formation. The combative Irishman was no stranger to a tackle or mixing things up physically, but he was also a tremendous passer, capable of breaking through the opposition lines and always trying to move his team forward.
Since Keane’s departure in 2005, the defensive midfield role has largely been fulfilled by Michael Carrick, with Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher also occupying the position at different times. Each of them are or were technical operators, influencing games via intelligence rather than brute force.
Fabinho, with his blend of athleticism, discipline and technique, is the perfect midway point between both ideals. In securing the Brazilian, Mourinho would be getting his midfield destroyer without compromising on technical quality.
Passing to relieve pressure
The Monaco star’s pass accuracy of 84.4% in Ligue 1 last season is a slight reduction on Carrick’s 89% Premier League average, while Ander Herrera (who also played as United’s deepest midfield on a regular basis last term) completed 87.6% of his passes.
However, Fabinho demonstrated his ability to play the kind of incisive vertical passes which are becoming an increasingly valuable trait in the modern game. With structured and coordinated pressing now more common demands from managers, the advantage of having a player capable of breaking through an opponent’s press is twofold: it aids forward progression but also relieves pressure, moving possession into areas of available space.
The advantage of having a player capable of breaking the lines of the opponent’s press is twofold: it aids forward progression, but it also relieves pressure
Fabinho’s average of one key pass per 90 minutes last season was better than Carrick’s return of 0.7. Meanwhile, his figure of 1.1 dribbles per match was unmatched by Carrick (0.4) and Matic (0.9), and achieved by his excellent ability to hold off oncoming defenders and carry the ball beyond them into space.
The Brazilian's mastery of spreading play over short and medium distances will prove invaluable to Pogba, whose creative instincts were too often stifled by defensive responsibility last season. In short, he was deployed deeper than he’d have liked in a double pivot.
During his time at Juventus, the 24-year-old midfielder produced his best form on the left of a midfield three with a deep-lying playmaker – or regista – alongside him, rather than a pure defensive midfielder. For the majority of his time in Turin, Pogba had the luxury of sharing a midfield with Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio – two world-class registi who could not only break up opposition attacks, but get the ball to him in the kinds of areas where he is most dangerous.
A more conventional destroyer such as Matic or Eric Dier (also linked to Manchester United this summer) might be less able to help Pogba in this way, but Fabinho would have no such trouble.
Next: Fabinho's excellence in action