“This moment to adapt, it hasn’t been easy… there were many times I wasn’t picked,” said Brazilian midfielder Fabinho, speaking after his first Premier League start for Liverpool, in the 4-1 defeat of Cardiff City at Anfield in late October.
The Reds announced their deal to sign the midfielder from Monaco for £40million back in May, shortly after the 2017/18 season had concluded.
The move came out of the blue but it was a pleasant surprise for Reds fans, allowing them to reflect on a campaign of real progress over the summer while pondering what Jürgen Klopp’s men, anchored by their highly rated new star, might achieve over the next year.
His debut was a long time in coming, though. For all the excitement that surrounding the prospect a Liverpool midfield containing Fabinho and fellow new recruit Naby Keïta, the latter has fallen out of favour after an indifferent start while the Brazilian wasn’t seen until a cameo from the bench in a 1-0 win away to Huddersfield Town on October 20.
Although his adaptation to life in English football, and to Klopp’s unique tactical and physical demands, was slower than hoped, Fabinho’s first start, in the 4-0 Champions League victory over Crvena Zvezda at Anfield, showed the wait had been worth it.
The 23-year-old, who was converted from a flying right-back into a dynamic and disciplined midfielder while at Monaco, demonstrated exactly why Klopp was so keen to add him to the Reds’ midfield options, and how he represents a more comprehensive defensive-midfield package than his positional rivals.
Touching the ball 96 times, more than every player bar centre-back Joe Gomez (102) and midfield partner Georginio Wijnaldum (97), Fabinho showcased his play-building ability by completing 90 per cent of his passes and creating two chances.
When out of possession, his positioning and tenacity saw him win a staggering nine tackles, six aerial duels and one interception. Despite this being a Champions League fixture, Liverpool were not overly tested by the weakest team in their otherwise highly competitive group, but Fabinho’s accuracy and discipline ensued the Serbian visitors were kept at arm’s length.
“Of course it’s not possible to be always called,” Fabinho said after the Cardiff win. “But whenever the coach needs me I want to be ready for it.” And ready he was.
Although his stats were less striking against Cardiff, in his first Premier League start, he was again a composed and reliable presence in the middle of the park, with 99 touches and an 87 per cent pass accuracy, he created one chance and made two tackles.
Fabinho’s impact has not only been felt in what he has been able to do with and without the ball, but also in the tactical flexibility he allows Liverpool. His introduction has coincided with a switch to a 4-2-3-1 shape, a formation Klopp used frequently at Borussia Dortmund.
The Brazilian midfielder thrived as part of a double pivot at Monaco – albeit largely in a 4-4-2 – where he provided measured distribution and defensive cover alongside either the athletic drive of Tiemoué Bakayoko or the progressive passing of João Moutinho. Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson make for similar options respectively, only offering a qualitative upgrade.
Fabinho is yet to face a testing level of opponent as a starter in the Liverpool midfield but the early signs are good, and he has shown countless times with Monaco that he is not overawed by occasion or flustered by the prospect of shackling high-quality opposition.
The midfield combinations that suddenly open up to Klopp with Fabinho now integrated – with Keïta, Wijnaldum, Henderson and even Oxlade-Chamberlain once recovered from injury all offering something different – what was previously an area of weakness for Liverpool has become a real strength.