Without a shred of a doubt, Fabinho has been Liverpool’s best centre half this season.
Considering the Brazilian only played the role once previously, keeping Robert Lewandowski scoreless in a 0-0 Champions League draw with FC Bayern in 2019, his adaptation to the heart of the defence has been remarkable.
In lieu of the injured Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, the number 3 has been a beacon of consistency in the backline, despite the nonstop mismatch of partners he has had to couple up with owing to the Anfield side’s crippling injury list.
However, the Reds now find themselves at a point where they need Fabinho back in his favoured position, as the number 6 shielding the back four from midfield.
Without the towering Brazilian using his nous, physicality and long legs to squash opposition attempts to play through the Liverpool press, Jurgen Klopp’s team have been a soft touch through the heart of their midfield in recent times.
This soft underbelly was exposed time and time again against Chelsea at Anfield — where Jorginho, the Blues’ Italian maestro, was given almost free reign to dictate the game — and the 1-0 scoreline flattered the hosts, who would have lost by a much heavier margin had Thomas Tuchel’s team been sharper in front of goal.
The Blues would have found the Reds far less accommodating with Fabinho marshalling the midfield. Many of Jorginho passes were lofted and aimed towards the pace of Timo Werner; a sequence of play that would have been far harder to execute with Fabinho — whose aerial success rate stands at 82% when he plays in midfield — marshalling the engine room.
In the Brazilian international’s absence, Liverpool would have to field a centre half pairing comprised of inexperienced players. Nat Phillips, Ozan Kabak, Ben Davies & Rhys Williams — average age 22 — would be the options, providing there aren’t further injuries in that area, Klopp has to turn to.
With young players, but especially defenders, will come inconsistency and mistakes and it would be naive to expect the youthful foursome to not blot their copybooks between now and the end of the season. But with Fabinho patrolling the area directly in front of them, their errors can be lessened and they can be protected.
Georginio Wijnaldum has done a commendable job in moonlighting as the deepest, defensive midfielder, but the Dutchman’s talents are better served further up the pitch. Likewise, Thiago, whose erratic tackling has been exposed on numerous occasions, has had to tailor his game and alter the way he plays — taking on more defensive responsibility — in order to bolster Liverpool further defensively.
From a distribution perspective, Fabinho also offers accuracy and ambition to the Reds’ play. The Brazilian ranks in the 95% percentile for passes attempted, according to statistics from FBRef. This is an area where Wijnaldum — whose first instinct in that role is safety — doesn’t match up to the former Monaco man in.
With so many different defenders injured, at the time of writing Liverpool have fielded 18 different centre half partnerships this season, the Reds have had to play midfielders in defence, meaning that certain players — most notably the fantastically durable Wijnaldum — have had to consistently play in the most condensed schedule of all time. Logically, as time progresses their performances would drop, or injuries would occur, thanks to fatigue.
With Fabinho returning to the midfield, other players — but especially the Reds’ number 5 — can be afforded a well-earned rest and this could help boost their showings and energy reserves towards the end of the season.
For the last three seasons, a key component of Liverpool’s attack has been their bombastic full-backs — Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson — providing both width and creativity to their play. The proof is in the pudding with the Scot and the Scouser breaking Premier League assist records for the full-back role.
But this season, in order to protect the unfamiliar and — in some cases — untested centre-halves, with Jordan Henderson playing as a defender for the first time in his career, the full-back duo have had to clip their offensive wings, which, in turn, has damaged the team going forward.
Yes, Fabinho not playing in defence will weaken that area, but, when you weigh it all up, the Brazilian will likely benefit the team more by returning to midfield.