The Reds have been in sensational form this past month and are currently unbeaten in their last seven games in the Premier League. Last week’s victory against Newcastle was their sixth league victory in succession, but they were held to a 2-2 draw by the Spurs on Sunday, which helped City increase their lead to three points at the top of the Premier League.
Jurgen Klopp’s side has been affected by the rise in Covid cases in the league. Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho, and Curtis Jones all missed their last two games after they tested positive for Covid.
Whether it be due to injuries, unavailability, or lack of form, Liverpool have been unable to field anything like a settled midfield so far this season. While that has seemingly made little difference to their attacking exploits, a whopping 50 goals have been scored in 18 games, but the cover for the defense hasn’t been consistent. Gini Wijnaldum’s loss has been felt in that regard, although Liverpool haven’t been helped by the number of injuries to their best defensive midfielder Fabinho, who has failed to start more than half the games.
Spurs were helped by a Liverpool midfield that at times looked disjointed, especially when Spurs broke on the counter. This suggests a lack of balance in the centre of the park for Jurgen Klopp’s team, which wasn’t helped by the positive cases in the squad. The ideal midfield balance in the three-man midfield formation used by Liverpool is one deep-lying defensive midfielder, a box-to-box midfielder, and a more advanced player who can perform a role of a playmaker.
Fabinho stands out as the only defensive midfielder in Liverpool’s squad who can play the deep-lying role in the manner required. His more reactive defensive skills mean he can do similar work to that of a centre-back, while his mobility and technique make him the perfect midfielder at the base of the three.
The above visual shows us the passing and progression stats for Fabinho in the Premier League this season. The Brazilian has attempted 52.84 passes per 90 minutes and has been able to complete 88.75% of these passes. He has a very high success rate with the 8.83 passes he has played into the final third per 90 minutes. He lies in the 93rd percentile for the number of passes he has played into the final third.
Fabinho’s worth as a defender in midfield was also shown when he switched to centre-back during last season’s injury crisis. He was hugely missed in the centre of the park but was also impressive in the backline, where he displayed the defensive abilities that can often go unnoticed in midfield. Fabinho has attempted 13.21 defensive actions per 90 minutes this season and has completed 78.75% of these defensive actions. He has a high success rate in winning aerial duels as he has won 64.52% and lies in the 92nd percentile for the same. He has also attempted a high number of interceptions per 90 minutes.
Fabinho also contributed to the performances of his teammates. For Henderson, Fabinho’s arrival at the club led to one of his best runs of form in a Liverpool shirt as he was able to move forward into a number eight role. As he is the most deep-lying player in the midfield, he can support his defenders and give his full-backs more freedom to move forward and contribute to the attacking actions of the team.
Fabinho has won a high number of duels throughout the pitch, as seen in the above visual. He has won most of his duels in the centre of the park in the middle third. The Brazilian has attempted 7.91 defensive duels per 90, and has also attempted 2.56 aerial duels per 90. He has also attempted several loose ball duels and helps to recover possession of the ball for his team.
The deepest midfielder can also be asked to press quite high up before retreating to protect the back four, which is where Fabinho’s long strides can be very useful. No other player in the Liverpool squad offers the Brazilian’s combination of physical attributes and positional intelligence. He can read the game very well and can position himself accordingly to intercept the pass and win back the ball for his team.
Liverpool do not have a player like Fabinho who can be their defensive general in the midfield and do all the hard work to win back the ball. Klopp and Liverpool know that to win the Premier League against competitors such as Manchester City and Chelsea, a team needs to be exceptional, and an exceptional team would have picked up all three points in this recent game against Tottenham Hotspur.
The reason they weren’t able to, was partly due to a lack of balance, presence, and positional intelligence in midfield, and it’s something that will need to be addressed if Liverpool are to challenge for the title.