Brazilian midfield linchpin Fabinho is set to miss between four and six weeks after picking up a knee injury in Liverpool’s frustrating 1-1 draw with Napoli in the Champions League in midweek.
After taking a few months to adapt to his new surroundings following a big money switch from Monaco, the 26 year old has established himself as a vital cog in the Reds machine.
Making an indelible impression on a team that won the Champions League and has lost once in the league in close to a calendar year — ironically in one of the few games he didn’t start — with his defensive solidity and under-appreciated playmaking abilities, the Brazil international has proved another brilliant signing.
Clearly, the former Real Madrid player missing this period in the season — given the European Champions’ massively inflated schedule means they will play ten games or more in the next four to six weeks — is a blow.
But Liverpool, through using the full extent of their squad and a slight tactical tweak can, cope, especially as most of the fixtures Fabinho is signposted to miss would be firmly in the “winnable” category.
Next up for the Anfield side is a home Merseyside Derby and then trips to Bournemouth in the league and Red Bull Salzburg in the Champions League before hosting struggling Watford.
After the game against the Hornets, Liverpool set off on their Club World Cup campaign before returning to travel to the season’s surprise package, Leicester City, on Boxing Day.
Ignoring the League Cup quarter final away to Aston Villa — with it being all but confirmed that an underage team will contest the game for the Reds — the volume of games is more challenging, Rodgers’ Foxes aside, than the actual fixtures. Most of which are against struggling teams or, in the case of Bournemouth, a side whose tactical identity suits Liverpool’s style of play.
To negotiate this fixture heavy period, Jurgen Klopp may consider reverting to the 4231 shape he played this time last season.
A change in formation may have the double impact of helping players who have struggled for form or a route into the team hit their straps.
Albeit his numbers are still objectively good, six goals in 11 appearances, Mohamed Salah — thanks in part to a troublesome ankle injury — has yet to catch fire this season.
Perhaps a change from playing as the right, inside forward to the number 9 role can help reinvigorate him. The Egyptian, with Roberto Firmino behind him in the #10 slot, thrived as a striker this time last season, including a hat-trick away to Bournemouth.
With Salah hypothetically playing as the striker, a vacancy opens on the right hand side of Liverpool’s attack. Into this void could come the recently returned Xherdan Shaqiri.
The Swiss international has missed a big chunk of the season with a calf injury, but the creative thrust that saw the Power Cube notch six goals and provide three assists in 24 Premier League games last season it would be a welcome benefit to a Reds team that has rarely hit the attacking heights they are capable of this season.
In the engine room double pivot, the European Champions have the scope to see out Fabinho’s absence relatively healthily.
Georginio Wijnaldum, a paragon of midfield versatility, can comfortably act as the defensive general in the middle, while Naby Keita can easily fulfil the transitional, link player berth.
The Guinean international has endured horrible luck in his Liverpool career to date, with the illness that kept him out of the Napoli draw the latest game he missed.
But Fabinho’s injury may provide a path to regular minutes he may not have seen otherwise, and represent one of the first breaks he’s had since swapping Leipzig for Merseyside.
Keita’s talent is not in question, with his run towards the end of last season — where he scored goals in big games and played very well in what was a title run in — a glowing example of his capabilities. But the question remains on whether the number 8, after so many set backs in the recent past, can stay fit long enough to fully establish himself.
Should the 24 year old swerve the spectre of injuries, he could — in a midfield two, the shape in which all his best club football has come — prove to be a key player to Liverpool over the Christmas period.
Fabinho, arguably the best defensive midfielder in the world, will always be missed. But in the looming swathe of games, the Reds have the personnel, the quality of opposition and the tactical versatility to cope with his absence.