Saturday 20 October 2018

Fabinho to Liverpool: What type of player is he, where will he fit in and who could miss out?

Fabinho Credit: Liverpool FC
Fabinho Credit: Liverpool FC

Daniel Zeqiri

Liverpool caught everyone unawares with the £43.7 million purchase of defensive midfielder Fabinho, announced on Monday night. The acquisition will immediately boost morale at Anfield following the pain of a Champions League final defeat, when a gulf in class in central midfield was evident.

There is no shame in that against Real Madrid's trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, but midfield has clearly been identified as a department in need of upgrades with Naby Keita due to arrive too. If Liverpool's pursuit of Lyon playmaker Nabil Fekir proves successful, Jurgen Klopp could have a completely new, well-balanced, midfield axis to transplant into his preferred 4-3-3. Fabinho will be asked to hold the fort in front of the back four, so what can Liverpool fans expect from their new anchorman?

His career so far...

Fabinho may have been a fixture in Monaco's first-team for several seasons, but the Brazilian is still only 24. He moved to Europe as a 19-year-old when Real Madrid snapped him up from Fluminense. However, Fabinho only played 14 minutes of senior football in the famous white jersey, making 30 appearances in the B team during his one season in Spain.

Real decided he was expendable in the summer of 2013 and sold Fabinho to Monaco, where has since established himself. The 24-year-old has only four caps for Brazil and missed out on a place in their World Cup squad, though he does have to contend with competition from Fernandinho, Casemiro, Paulinho and Rene Augusto in coach Tite's midfield.

What type of player is Fabinho?

Fabinho has filled transfer gossip columns over the past few windows as a ball-winning central midfielder of some repute, but it was not always that way. Considered a right-back in his early days, it was not until the second half of the 2014-15 season that Leonardo Jardim moved him to the defensive midfield berth - which proved to be a masterstroke.

A 0-0 home draw against Paris Saint-Germain on the January 3rd 2015 was Fabinho's first turn-out in this position, and he was utilised there again in Monaco's famous 3-1 win away at Arsenal in the Champions League the next month. 

A quick glance at Fabinho's physical profile and this positional change makes sound sense. At six foot two, he always looked a little bit too tall and rangy for a full-back, who tend to be more squat and agile to cope in one-against-one situations against tricky wide players.

Fabinho was a midfield mainstay in Jardim's league-winning Monaco of 2016-17, typically partnering Tiémoué Bakayoko as the two deeper players in their 4-2-2-2 system. Bakayoko was generally the more progressive of the two in a box-to-box role, with Fabinho sweeping up behind and screening the centre-backs. His height and the position he plays will draw comparison with Steven Nzonzi and even compatriot Gilberto Silva.

Much of his best work is exactly what you would expect from a player in this position: he ranked very highly in Ligue 1 last season for duel success, tackles won and aerial dominance. Breaking up play, reading the game and protecting his back four might be Fabinho's principal job but he can also play when he gets the ball.

Monaco, like Liverpool, were a potent counter-attacking side and Fabinho was tasked with shifting the ball forwards quickly once possession was regained. His days at right-back also mean he can carry the ball should space open up, and his knowledge of that position also offers Liverpool versatility. An added bonus - Fabinho is an excellent penalty-taker, scoring 19 in his career.

Where will he fit in at Liverpool?

As the deepest midfielder in their 4-3-3, is the simple answer. Klopp sometimes opts for two sitting midfielders against stronger opponents - something more like a 4-2-3-1 - but he typically prefers one deep-lying midfielder flanked by two energetic No 8s. Jordan Henderson and James Milner have performed admirably in the holding role particularly in Europe, but in Fabinho Liverpool now have a specialist with more legs to cover space.

That is an important point given the numbers Liverpool commit forward both in attack and when pressing or counter-pressing in trademark style. That style can yield high rewards but also carries an element of risk, placing strain on those in the back-half of the team to defend in isolation high up the pitch.

Fabinho has shown he can cope in these circumstances, and his presence might also allow Liverpool's full-backs to push (even) further forward. Fabinho can then slot across into the space they vacate to thwart counter-attacks.

While Fabinho will not add creativity, but he might add a little more control and authority in possession. Liverpool reached a Champions League final with a midfield that had little interest, or capability, to dictate games through possession - hence why their games can appear a little helter-skelter.

This approach works well against teams who try to open up and play against them, when Liverpool can 'create' by pinching the ball back and breaking. Liverpool have had more trouble under Klopp when teams put 10 men behind the ball and sit deep. 'Put them in traffic' was how Carlos Carvalhal described his Swansea team's tactics after a 1-0 win over Klopp's side. Against packed defences, a light is shone on the lack of technical quality in Liverpool's midfield who struggle to break sides down. Keita, and perhaps Fekir, will be tasked with improving that while Fabinho provides the platform.

Who will miss out?

Emre Can is set to depart on a Bosman, and you would expect both Fabinho and Keita to start given the investments made in them. That leaves one midfield slot up for grabs. This could be filled by a more progressive option, such as Fekir or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, or Jordan Henderson or James Milner for a bit more defensive security. Henderson, Milner and Giogrinio Wijnaldum showed they are worth of the shirt during Liverpool's Champions League run, but are likely to be rotational options next season as Liverpool look to mount a challenge on multiple fronts.

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