Holding midfield was once a real problem position for Liverpool. Now, however, the Reds boast the two best players at the role in England.
The need for improvement
Liverpool didn’t win anything in the 17/18 season but it set the foundations for a wildly successful period. The Reds and Jurgen Klopp established a world-class attack in Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah.
They also settled upon a very promising set of defenders in Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson. Joe Gomez and Joel Matip would settle the other spot over the next 12 months, while Alisson arrived as a world-class goalkeeper.
Midfield was the ‘problem’ area, then. Liverpool had a decent selection of players but they all did roughly the same thing, with very few specialists. Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Gini Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the departing Emre Can were all hard-working, versatile midfielders but not very specialised (Oxlade-Chamberlain apart, arguably).
The most obvious role to fill was in holding midfield. Liverpool lacked a player to protect the defence, recycle possession, and provide a base for the other midfielders to push forward.
So that summer, they went and found exactly that player.
Fabinho joins the team…gradually
Liverpool signed AS Monaco midfielder Fabinho for around £39m, effectively out of nowhere. There were no links suggesting he was on his way and the first reports that something could happen came out just hours before Liverpool announced his signing.
The team now had a specialised holding midfield player – exactly what they seemed to need. But the problem would stay a troublesome one for some time.
Klopp didn’t appear to trust Fabinho as a sole holding player. In fact, Fabinho didn’t play a Premier League game until late October. And when he did finally get games, Liverpool played 4-2-3-1 – roughly the formation he’d played with Monaco. If Fabinho was there, he needed a helper alongside him.
It wasn’t until March 2019 that Fabinho played an important game for Liverpool in a 4-3-3. That came against Bayern Munich and there was no looking back. Fabinho cemented his role in the side and Liverpool improved.
Improved so much, in fact, that they finished the season as European champions. Fabinho had proven, much like Alisson, to be an important piece of the puzzle.
But there was more to come.
An incredible start
Liverpool started the 19/20 campaign better than anyone could have imagined. The Reds won every game but one up until the new year – and Fabinho stood out.
Stood out so much, in fact, that we named him the breakthrough player of the year for 2019. For our money, he was the best holding midfielder in the world in 2019.
The truly incredible thing, however, is that Fabinho picked up an injury in late November and Liverpool actually improved. And that’s largely down to Henderson.
A player once seen as simply a placeholder in midfield kicked on to have a truly sensational December.
Liverpool kept an outstanding seven clean-sheets in nine games with Henderson there – winning every game. He was so good that we wondered if Fabinho should even get back in the side.
Returns with a wobble
When Fabinho did return, Liverpool wobbled. He simply wasn’t playing well, struggling to get up to pace and the team suffered defensively. Simply put, Henderson should have stayed in the role for longer.
The captain was playing incredibly well and his injury in February was a real worry. By the time football stopped, Fabinho hadn’t regained his form, while Henderson looked like the best holding midfield player in the country.
Certainly, with Fernandinho playing in defence for Manchester City, there wasn’t anyone consistently playing to Henderson’s level. Or delivering the same results.
Both back to their best
Since football’s return, both Fabinho and Henderson have had games in holding midfield. And both have put in fantastic showings.
Fabinho put in one of the best Liverpool performances of the season against Crystal Palace, for one. Not only did he help prevent palace from registering a single touch in the Liverpool box, but he created one goal and scored another.
It’s quite incredible, then, that Henderson, too, put in a great game against Brighton when Fabinho sat on the bench.
The captain pressed from the off, helping win the ball back for Liverpool’s second – which he scored himself, from the edge of the box.
With both playing at their best, they stand as the two best in the country. Now fan would swap either, certainly, for anyone else right now.
It’s yet more proof of the incredible work Klopp and co. are doing at Liverpool. In the space of two years, the Reds have turned a problem position into one of phenomenal strength.