Finally, for the first time since October, Fabinho played as a defensive midfielder in Liverpool’s 2-0 Champions League last 16 win over Red Bull Leipzig.
The Brazilian, who, due to the Reds’ huge injury toll, had operated in the centre half role for the majority of the season. The 27-year-old mostly excelled in the heart of the defence, but he was sorely missed in the engine room.
But with the signing of Ozan Kabak — not to mention Ben Davies, who supposedly exists although all the evidence points the contrary — and the improvement of Nat Phillips, Jurgen Klopp felt comfortable with restoring Fabinho to midfield and the results were spectacular.
Anchoring from the number six slot, Fabinho allowed Thiago, in particular, to play further forward and influence the game higher up the pitch. Georginio Wijnaldum, meanwhile, was his usual industrious self and recycled possession well and cut off passing lanes.
The balance of the team was wholly better with the Reds’ number 3 back in the midfield. The defence was protected better and this benefited the attack because Leipzig were unable to play through the press and it meant that wave after wave of attack was battering their defence.
With Fabinho, and his telescopically long legs, Liverpool controlled the space — if not the possession, where the Bundesliga side had 60% of the ball — and the German’s played in a part of the pitch that didn’t threaten the Reds. A lot of the east German team’s attacks were killed before they could develop and this gave the English champions the opportunity to sustain their attacks.
The Brazilian’s excellent performance was reflected in the stats. In total, the former Monaco man-made three successful tackles, a game-topping 12 ball recoveries and won four duels/interceptions. He also made a headed clearance, a huge attribute to have for a defensive midfielder, especially when most teams will try to play long over Liverpool.
Thiago was similarly effective off the ball. It must be a claustrophobic experience to play against the defending English champions. They cut off passing lanes, harry players on the ball and their press — when it’s at their best — is coordinated and aggressive.
The Spaniard made six successful tackles, eight ball recoveries and won seven duels/interceptions. A criticism of the 29-year-old has been his habit of diving into tackles and committing fouls, but with the midfield stiffened by Fabinho’s presence, we saw none of that. Instead, while playing in a more advanced area, Thiago was superb with his defensive chores.
On the ball, the former FC Bayern playmaker was typically sharp and recorded four successful long balls, one key pass and the Spain international created one big chance.
Of his partnership with Fabinho, Thiago said:
“Fabinho is a great player. He gives us a lot of confidence. It’s awesome to play alongside him. it meant I could move forward and play with the strikers more. I like it as it means you’re nearer the goal to create chances.”
Looking forward, the two midfielders could reinforce their partnership and provide the basis of Klopp’s midfield. Whether it is as a two-man midfield — a system both have played in at their former clubs, whether in a 442 or 4231 shape — or in a three, as they showed against Leipzig, the duo have shown an encouraging synergy.