Jack Hallows summarises the performance of Liverpool midfielder Fabinho in his first Champions League start for the club against Red Star Belgrade.
Finally, we get a proper look at Fabinho!
The Brazilian teased just how good Liverpool’s midfield would look with a proper defensive midfielder at the base when the Reds visited Huddersfield on Saturday, being given a 20 minute cameo at the end of the game.
If that was the entrée, serving to whet the appetite, then Wednesday night was absolutely the main course.
With Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Naby Keïta all battling injury problems to individual extents, Liverpool’s no.3 was afforded his second start for the club and his first in the Champions League.
To put it simply, this was as successful a debut as it could’ve been for Fabinho. The only thing that probably could’ve improved it, would’ve been if Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah had let him take one of the penalties – something his record from the spot suggests that he’s very, very good at.
The former Monaco man was fielded alongside Gini Wijnaldum in a 4-2-3-1 formation, something Klopp noted post match as being the midfielder’s “favourite system.”
Whether this was a specific tactical tweak to potentially make Fabinho more comfortable or simply Klopp changing it up for the opposition is unknown but the manager was certainly not wrong.
His £43m man certainly looked at home!
Solidity and intelligence in defence
The Brazilian won an outstanding 18 duels across the 90 minutes, displaying his defensive intelligence, physical ability and understanding of his own key traits by making seven successful tackles, winning six aerial duels and making one interception.
Despite playing in a double pivot with Wijnaldum, it was clear that Fabinho was the deepest lying of the midfielders and while he did make the occasional foray forwards, he frequently dropped either between the centre halves or in to cover the full backs when one of them pushed high up the pitch.
With his height, recovery pace and ability to help spring counter attacks quickly, this allowed Liverpool to almost operate in a 3-3-4 at times with Fabinho between van Dijk and Gomez, a ‘midfield’ of Wijnaldum, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold and a front four of Shaqiri, Firmino, Salah and Mané.
This is something that despite what both bring to Liverpool’s line-up when selected, neither Wijnaldum or Henderson can emulate with the same success.
Henderson’s role is more that of a pendulum when he plays, picking up the ball and moving it constantly in an attempt to needle the opposition and draw their midfielders out of position. When defending he’s also not quite as mobile as Fabinho, nor as physical and looks to intercept and break play rather than get stuck in and tackle.
Wijnaldum is similar both offensively and defensively when fielded in the deep-lying role but is a little more mobile than Henderson and possesses more physical traits and is more likely to use the ball ‘positively’.
The fact that Fabinho is able to operate more as a classic ‘6’ off the ball but possesses the passing range of an ‘8’ gave Liverpool an extra dimension against Red Star and meant they were able to suffocate their opposition in a way they haven’t done enough this season.
Positivity on the front foot
It wasn’t all rough and tumble defensive work from Fabinho, with the 25 year old creating two chances for his team mates, completing 90% of his 80 attempted passes and sending 55 of those in a forward direction.
The positivity of Fabinho’s distribution and his ability to back himself when driving forward at pace when he feels there isn’t a chance to make a pass that helps keep his side on the front foot is refreshing.
When Henderson is played in the ‘6’ he averages sending 12.6% of his passes into the feet of the forwards, while Wijnaldum is slightly better at 12.9%. Fabinho against Belgrade on the other hand was an incredible 31% (via @SimonBrundish).
Of course, Fabinho is a much smaller sample size than his team mates but even if his number drops down closer to 20%, it’s still a significant increase on the other two players frequently used in that position.
It may be a coincidence, the quality of the opposition, the fact that there were four attackers or a number of other things but the fact that Liverpool’s struggles to create quite as many chances as they did last season seemed to dissipate with Fabinho at the base of midfield spraying positive passes towards our attackers was certainly good to see.
Verdict – a successful debut
Realistically this is a very small sample size but every time I’ve seen Fabinho I do have to wonder whether it’s more of a mental thing that Klopp’s been trying to make sure of before starting him regularly.
The Brazilian looks a classy, physical and more than capable no.6 with a clear idea of not only his role in the midfield but also of his own best attributes and how he can contribute to this Liverpool team.
His presence also now gives Klopp options.
The extra solidity that Fabinho provides means Klopp can play four attacking players as he did against Belgrade with less worries about leaving his defenders open on the counter-attack.
Opposition players, going up against a Shaqiri – Wijnaldum – Fabinho midfield. pic.twitter.com/0s8smXvIrp
— Paul (@Kolology) October 24, 2018
Similarly, if he wanted to go for a more shut-up-shop option, the Brazilian’s solidity at the base and physical attributes such as his height and speed means he could absolutely be a real asset for his side when looking to hold onto leads and see out games.
This up close look at Fabinho has been a long time coming but hopefully now that Klopp seems to feel he’s at least ready enough to be selected, we’ll be seeing a lot more of him and see more performances of this level.