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Liverpool, 2019-20

If Liverpool are to maintain, or even extend, their six-point lead over defending champions Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, Fabinho can be expected to be particularly vital. The £43.7m signing from Ligue 1 Monaco has consistently excelled after an unconvincing start to his career in English football, and has been one of their most influential figures in them remaining unbeaten in the league from their opening 11 fixtures of 2019/20.

Virgil van Dijk may be considered the world’s finest defender but Jürgen Klopp’s back four is yet to rediscover the resilience that inspired them to win the 2018/19 Champions League, making Fabinho increasingly important. Against the threats posed by Kevin De Bruyne and his in-form City teammates – who are as certain to aggressively press Fabinho as they are to be a threat on the counter and attack into half-spaces in the pursuit of cutbacks and crosses into the penalty area – there is little question the Brazilian will have to be particularly alert.

Liverpool are in possession of their finest defensive midfielder since the once-great Javier Mascherano. He narrowly missed out on winning the title in 2008/09; if over the coming months they avoid further heartbreak, Fabinho will likely be remembered even more fondly.

Tactical analysis
Fabinho’s favoured role is at the base of midfield, where as the single pivot he can operate as the link between the central defenders and more advanced central midfielders playing either side of him. He attempts to create passing lines with those central defenders to advance possession and, if given time and space – particularly against teams operating in a mid-block – he will also seek to break those opposing lines by either playing through or over that block (above).

When he receives under pressure, he plays with caution and as simply as possible (below), returning possession to those behind him and attempting to encourage passages of play from there. His intelligence also invites him to use that pressure to create more adventurous passing lines; vertical passes towards him while he is facing his own goal will often act as a pressing trigger for opponents, and he will turn that press into an opportunity to draw opponents and therefore to create spaces in more advanced territory.

The protection he offers from midfield means that full-backs can be given the freedom to advance. Even when possession progresses he will remain in a deep position, where he can be used to recycle the ball (below) if further progress is blocked, or to defend in the event of a regain.

It is those instincts that mean he rarely makes forward runs, even he is capable of doing so. Only when circumstances dictate an additional number is required in the final third can he usually be seen advancing.

Role at Liverpool
Fabinho made only one appearance as a substitute in Liverpool’s two fixtures against City during 2018/19, but it has become almost unthinkable that he will not start their most important games. He was even rested in preparation for their rivals, to ensure that he avoided a suspension, and will return amid their pursuit of the balance they require for their biggest test so far of 2019/20.

When they press their midfield triangle is often inverted to one high individual and two deep (below) – particularly against opponents also playing a 4-3-3 – so that the Brazilian can advance towards the deepest-positioned opposing midfielder, to discourage attempts from playing through central areas. The responsibility for the two more attacking midfielders is therefore given to those playing either side of him – most commonly Jordan Henderson, and Georginio Wijnaldum.

Against opponents who then advance into wide areas, Fabinho is capable of covering around those attacking midfielders to protect against an attacking full-back or wide attacker moving inside with possession, and therefore to force them to play sidewards or even backwards. His awareness when doing so is exceptional.

He scans, and recognises when his teammates require cover or need to advance to a specific opponent. Similarly, if the midfielders either side of him have moved to defend against an advancing full-back, he will move to the relevant attacking midfielder while ensuring that their midfield shape remains compact.

That he also takes responsibility for defending against cutbacks (above) means that he passes attacking runners onto his teammates. If runners are used on his blindside, that particular instinct could therefore be exploited. In those same areas, when defending at set-pieces, while his frame and physicality should be strengths, his occasional uncertainty in watching either the ball or an opponent can again be exposed by runners on his blindside.

Their responses to both attacking and defensive transitions is a significant feature of Liverpool’s play. Fabinho understands exactly when he needs to join a counter-press or to withdraw and cover (below), and of the need to detect potential passing lines nearest to the new ball carrier on the occasions the ball has been lost. Without him doing so, counter-presses often prove ineffective, because the ball carrier will otherwise have played out of the pressure being applied.

His positioning, and more specifically the distance he is operating at in front of Liverpool’s central defenders, is a further priority, and he therefore can also withdraw to protect the relevant spaces while his more advanced teammates apply the counter-press. That position is largely determined by how play is unfolding; against dangerous opponents it is often cautious during the opening stages of a match, and complemented by him withdrawing more commonly than joining the counter-press.

Fabinho will also largely consider the likely next phase of play, and by extension monitor where he need to be, if Liverpool’s attempts to produce a counter-attack are prevented. This also involves him adopting a withdrawn position, and if he has been the one to turn possession over, finding a straightforward pass to a more advanced teammate.


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