Fabinho and Jordan Henderson can be a partnership that saves Liverpool’s season. It’s not one they ever wanted to use, however.
If you’d known back at the start of the season that Liverpool would host Manchester United with Fabinho and Jordan Henderson as their centre-backs, you’d have called it crazy. Or called Jurgen Klopp crazy.
Neither is a natural centre-half, after all. Jordan Henderson has never played the role regularly, either. Fabinho hadn’t before this campaign.
And yet, Klopp partnered them against the Premier League’s best away side. A side that averaged three goals per game away from home, in fact.
The result? United failed to score away from home for the first time this season, in all competitions.
So do Liverpool have something here?
Playing with two midfielders in defence is unorthodox but it works. It only really works for Liverpool, though.
The Reds dominate the ball in games but they also dominate space. You can’t leave room in behind for them to counter, so you’ve got to sit back.
But they have so much of the ball that you have to stay compact, too. As a result, teams typically give Liverpool nearly 2/3rds of the pitch and just defend the final 30.
That means the centre-backs see the ball far more than typical defenders as they push to the halfway line. For perspective, United played with two defenders and two defensive midfielders on Sunday.
Their touches read like this: 36, 53, 53, 59. This is fairly typical for a team travelling to Anfield. No Tottenham Hotspur players in those roles managed over 50 touches, for example
Wolves were a little more adventurous, though they paid with a 4-0 defeat. Their centre-backs had 53 and 54 touches, while their deep playmaker managed 74.
So that’s three top teams who came to Anfield and the highest number of touches from any player in a deep position was 74 – and he was a playmaker.
Against United, Fabinho had 91 touches. Henderson had 98. (Per Whoscored)
Liverpool’s centre-halves, then, have the ball far more often than your typical players in those roles. They have it more in line with playmaking defensive midfielders.
Thus using two actual deep-lying midfielders as defenders works on the ball. They’re largely doing what they did anyway, just with no one behind them.
Off the ball, too, Liverpool almost entirely defend against counter-attacks. That’s typically a job for defensive midfielders, who push out, stop runners, and press the ball. Defenders operate more like sweepers in that case.
Again, Henderson and Fabinho defended counters as they normally would. Alisson helped sweep up and it worked well against a good team.
And perhaps this is the way forward. Liverpool’s defenders play like midfielders most of the time, so why not just use midfielders for now?
We’re not sure it’ll work against Manchester City, who don’t give up space and ball against Liverpool. But against everyone else, this should work.
It’s now two games in for the pairing and they look good. Klopp may have stumbled on a way through this injury crisis for now.