This is the best Liverpool side of the Premier League era.
There seems such little controversy in that, yet five years ago, the Reds were in a mire, in freefall after another debilitating second place finish that saw their star striker depart. It was debilitating because there was no recovery, no tactical acumen, no leading light to catch them as they fell. It was during that time, in that season – 14/15 – where the discussion of Liverpool’s midfield woes brought out a phrase so often repeated that it became a parody of itself: “Where’s the defensive midfielder?”
Five years on, and Liverpool have the best ‘defensive midfielder’ in the world.
It’s all been a part of this finely crafted plan– for Klopp’s system to work, the fullbacks need to be high up the pitch so that they can deliver their wicked crosses and stretch opposition teams – just as they did against Manchester City. Pep’s defence closed in to prevent Mane and Salah from getting the ball between the centre half and fullback, meaning there was plenty of space into which Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold could maraud.
However, with those marauding runs comes a problem. See, Liverpool already have the best centre half in the world in Virgil van Dijk, and he’s perfectly accustomed to covering large expanses of space. They also have a rigid midfield structure that covers the gaps left by the fullbacks – it’s the redeeming quality of the often-maligned Henderson/Wijnaldum combination.
But, for it all to click, and for the fullbacks to feel comfortable on their ambitious ventures, there needed to be one final piece in the puzzle. Enter a Brazilian by the name of Fabinho.
The Brazilian has become imperative to the way Liverpool play, able to offer protection and defend against the counterattacks that plagued Liverpool under Klopp in the German’s first two seasons. The 2-0 against Burnley in the second game of 2016/17, for instance, was down to the midfield being punctured on the break. The Watford 3-0 game and Bournemouth 4-3 were similar.
So, is Fabinho is the best purely defensive midfielder in the world? Of course not, when it comes to acting as the ‘destroyer’ there are plenty of great midfielders who can interrupt counterattacks and play a simple pass to get their team going again: Casemiro and Wilfried Ndidi come to mind.
But Fabinho is not like them. Because Fabinho is not like anyone else in world football at the moment.
Yes, he’s able to anchor the midfield, interrupt counterattacks and win the ball back (more on that in this article from April). But its his role in Liverpool’s build-up, especially when the ball needs to move at a fast, aggressive tempo, that separates him from the rest.
Put simply, he’s an elite purely defensive midfielder, and he’s also an elite passing midfielder. He may not be the best at either, but the combination of being elite at both means he is entirely unique.
In the above GIF (courtesy of LFCTV’s YouTube channel) Fabinho, under the pressure of two City players, casually turns his way out of trouble and surges forward into space. He’s not pressed as he turns by the City midfielder behind him, because its expected that he’ll just find the safe option back to the keeper: yet he doesn’t, because he’s resistant to being pressed. This is as rare a trait as you’ll find in a deep-lying midfielder, and the one that separates the good from the great.
City have Fernandinho, the dark master of tactical fouling. They also have Rodri, an excellent distributor who plays the first note in City’s symphony.
Fabinho is those two players rolled into one.
There’s the interception, just ahead of the back four, that is typical of the “destroyer” type of defensive midfielder.
And the progressive win and dribble that sees him fly ahead of his midfield partners and cause an unforeseen problem for City’s defenders.
Why does Klopp continue to pick the midfield of Wijnaldum and Henderson alongside Fabinho? Because though it may seem devoid of creativity, the progressive passing comes from the Brazilian, while the others focus on intensity and pressure. (It also helps that Wijnaldum is similarly ‘unpressable’).
Liverpool fans are coming to terms with the idea that they’ve gone from having no out and out stars to having the best front three in the world and the best centre half in the world. However, there’s one addition to that list – the one that links them together.
The defensive midfielder that was promised.