Liverpool took fans completely by surprise with the announcement of a long-term deal for Fabinho Tavares in May. The club’s first signing of this summer was completed well before the World Cup shenanigans got underway.
With the Brazilian not called up to Tite’s squad in Russia, his availability to train under Jürgen Klopp during the entirety of the preseason gives him room to bed in with his new teammates and manager’s style of play.
Defensive midfield: a longstanding need fulfilled
Fabinho’s arrival on Merseyside has been received with an extra dose of pleasure across quarters. Since the departure of Javier Mascherano to Barcelona, there has been a vacuum to fill in defensive midfield and a constant cry from fans to replace the Argentine (a plea that regularly fell on deaf ears until now).
Jordan Henderson and Emre Can – and at times last season, Gini Wijnaldum – have played as the deeper midfielder- the #6 – in Klopp’s system. Given that the first two are primarily box-to-box midfielders, their natural instincts to push forward had to be curbed somewhat, a situation also true of the Dutchman.
Fabinho, on the other hand, is a tall, lanky player used to playing at the base of the midfield and shielding the defence.
With 3.4 tackles and 1.3 interceptions per game, his numbers are better than both Henderson (1.8 and 1.1) and Can (2.6 and 1.1) and more in line with N’Golo Kante (3.1 and 2.6) and Fernandinho (1.6 and 1.4).
Position and utility
Liverpool’s penchant to bombard forward has often seen them leave gaping spaces behind making them very susceptible to lightning counterattacks. Before the joy of scoring has sunk in, the Reds have often found themselves conceding silly, avoidable goals.
Fabinho is the perfect fit in this high-line-pressing system – with an excellent ability to read the game from a defensive standpoint while also having adequate positioning sense.
The Brazilian’s arrival should provide a measure of relief for the defence while also opening up the chance for his more attack-minded midfield partners – and also fullbacks – to join the attack more often.
Klopp indicated the Brazilian could be used as a #6 or even as a #8 or #2 if the need arises. He is almost certain to be used as a #6 – the deepest in a midfield trio in Klopp’s 4-3-3 style, either alternating with Henderson or alongside him. Despite Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain being ruled out for the season, the likes of Keita, James Milner, Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson, and Wijnaldum vying with Fabinho for three available midfield slots mean Klopp will have the problem of plenty (finally).
This depth is, of course, a welcome relief, given the expectations and number of games required to be played across competitions.
Aerial presence and attacking vision
At 6’2, Fabinho is a towering presence in both boxes. He has a propensity to not only win aerial duels and headers, but could also prove to be extremely useful in case of set pieces in the Reds’ favour.
While Fabinho’s defensive positioning is solid, he also has the natural Brazilian flair in attack. His ability to provide key passes, join the attack when necessary and a good eye for goal will all come in handy in a system that relies more on a team’s performance than individual talent alone.
He is creative, and this can be vital especially while building up play from deep (no matter how high the line).
A word of caution
Much as Fabinho is a specialist in his position and a proven winner, it must not be forgotten that he is arriving from a different country/league. Monaco played an attacking style of football, but Jardim preferred two deep midfielders (in a 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-3-1) which is different from Klopp’s preferred 4-3-3 (staggered).
Fabinho is used to playing alongside João Moutinho (or Tiémoué Bakayoko before he moved to Chelsea) deeper than may be required of him in a midfield three. It is something Klopp has already accounted for.
“You have seen it a little bit with Fabinho, that he needs to settle – he’s a little bit too deep between the centre-halves. We do it differently to Monaco. You can push him into position but because it’s natural for him moments later he’s again deep. That shows he needs time to adapt to different styles,” he told reporters.
Both this required change and the length of adaptation period will depend on how quickly Fabinho learns and assimilates Klopp’s style and system. The best part is his acceptance of the situation and willingness to learn.
“I will have to get used to my new team-mates, to get used to what the manager wants from me and to get used to the way Liverpool play, because I’ve noticed already it’s a different way of playing compared to what I was used to,” he told reporters.
The Brazilian’s fit in Klopp’s squad and style in unquestionable. There is, however, likely to be a period of adaptation until he features regularly.
With the weight of expectations, a pleasurable experience can prove to be a testing time. Klopp would be keen to avoid this and Fabinho is likely to eased in slowly – as he did with Oxlade-Chamberlain – a strategy that could benefit both player as well as team.
Fabinho’s arrival not only improves squad depth but also eliminates a weakness in deep midfield for the Reds. In addressing one of their primary areas of concern with a specialist, proven player, Liverpool have definitely gone into a position of strength.