LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 16, 2020: Liverpool's Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' celebrates at the final whistle during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 2-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Fabinho’s defensive days are over after reminder he’s among world’s best midfielders

Fabinho asserted himself as one of Jurgen Klopp’s key components during the 2020/21 season as he finished the campaign underlining his importance after an injury savaged season.

20/21 won’t live long in the memory of Liverpool, or many football, fans. Behind closed doors matches, congested fixtures schedules, and the unprecedented amount of injuries; they all ended last weekend as Klopp’s men snuck into third place on the final day, a feat that looked improbable just a few weeks prior.

If he wasn’t already from previous trophy-sweeping seasons, Fabinho cemented himself as one of Klopp’s vital cogs in his – normally – well-oiled machine. He played 42 times across all competitions, with only six players racking up more minutes than the Brazilian.

However, 24 of his appearances came at centre-half as he was forced to help fill the Virgil van Dijk-sized hole that appeared in Liverpool’s defence, meaning that he was only granted 18 outings in his favoured position: at the base of Liverpool’s midfield.

Like with most of those at Anfield, Fabinho found his season halted with muscle injuries on two occasions. The first was a hamstring injury in October that ruled him out of the visit of West Ham and Liverpool’s trip up the M62 to face Manchester City, before being again ruled out in January as Liverpool’s rot began.

It was perhaps his spells on the sidelines, and out of position, that highlighted his importance more than anything executed on the pitch. This isn’t due to a lack of quality on Fabinho’s part, but more the nature of his role and positioning often means he’s not appreciated until he’s taken away.

Fabinho‘s selflessness allowed Liverpool to deploy him at centre-back alongside Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, and the many others who were obligated to play that role for the Reds this campaign. But he returned to midfield in the penultimate months of the season, allowing his quality to be emphasised again as he guided Liverpool to an impressive-in-the-circumstances third-place finish.

Fabinho, 2020/21

Fabinho badge general Liverpool FC (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Started: 38 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 4
Unused sub: 1
Goals: 0
Assists: 1

Overall Season Rating: 8.5

Fabinho the lighthouse

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 30, 2020: Liverpool’s Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' during the FA Premier League match between Newcastle United FC and Liverpool FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

When Thiago and Henderson lined up ahead of Fabinho at Goodison Park in October, it whetted the appetite of Liverpool fans everywhere. Thiago would play, arguably, his best game to date for the Reds as he was freed of his defensive duties; with Fabinho providing the base for former Bayern Munich star to dictate the game’s tempo.

Liverpool’s unparalleled injury crisis meant Klopp found it hard to find consistency in the middle of the park, as Henderson, Fabinho and Thiago all spent time on the sidelines.

However, Liverpool would find some sort of rhythm in the final two months of the season, due to the emergence of Nat Phillips. This allowed Fabinho to be slotted back in his favourable holding midfield role, as he guided Liverpool to eight wins from the final ten outings, with the two draws coming in the absence of Phillips, when Fabinho was forced to, again, drop back.

Fabinho’s best midfield performance of the season came at the Emirates as Liverpool left North London 3-0 victors. His performance that night would optimise everything perfect about him, selfless, efficient, and so important to this Liverpool side.

Further impressive displays came against Southampton at Anfield as Liverpool entered the business end of the campaign with their season still in the balance. Just days later, his dominant display at Old Trafford would all but confirm Liverpool’s place in next season’s Champions League as his long, Dyson-like, limbs mopped up any danger while he patrolled the Old Trafford turf protecting his centre-half colleagues behind him.

It’s not worth thinking about where Liverpool would’ve ended up had he not been present throughout the campaign. The Reds would’ve no doubt been a sinking wreckage left stranded in the fight for Europa League football.

Fabinho the utility man

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 17, 2021: Liverpool's Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' tackles Manchester United's Edinson Cavani during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Fabinho, maybe a victim of his own success, was first forced to deputise in place of Joe Gomez for Liverpool’s trip to Stamford Bridge in September. An imposing performance, no doubt, planted a seed in the mind of the Liverpool manager as he dealt with the presence of Timo Werner exceptionally, using his positional awareness and reading of the game to immobilise the pace advantage of the German forward.

Further defensive masterclasses came at Crystal Palace in December as Liverpool hit seven without reply and against Manchester United, Leicester and Tottenham at Anfield as Liverpool looked to be sailing to league title number 20 in the absence of Van Dijk and Gomez.

Fabinho’s impressive defensive performances translated onto the European stage, as Liverpool avoided conceding in the four group stage matches where he was deployed at centre-back – Midtjylland equalised after he had been subbed off – including a dramatic and acrobatic clearance in Amsterdam on matchday one.

He boasted a pass completion rate of 90.8% in all competitions, per FBref, as he allowed Liverpool to intricately play out from the back and break between lines with a quarterback-esque style when needed. He also completed the most tackles of any Liverpool player (72), as he continued to demonstrate his importance to Liverpool’s style of play, winning the ball back at speed.

Although Fabinho’s importance was highlighted more than ever this season, he, like many others, endured a slump in form as Liverpool went into freefall in the early months of 2021. Poor displays away at Southampton, along with Burnley and Manchester City’s visits to Anfield, sent Liverpool 10 points behind Pep Guardiola’s side.

One glance at the teamsheet would tell you why this was the case, as the Brazilian was paired in unorthodox fashion with Jordan Henderson at the back instead of midfield, as Klopp desperately scrambled around for solutions to Liverpool’s personnel crisis.

Role for next season

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - Wednesday, March 10, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp embraces Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' after the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg game between Liverpool FC and RB Leipzig at the Puskás Aréna. (Pic by Propaganda)

It’s no coincidence that Thiago has appeared to flourish on Fabinho’s return to midfield, and with the departure of Gini Wijnaldum, it seems that Klopp’s midfield trio already picks itself, fitness dependent.

Fabinho’s presence will be integral to any honours Liverpool win in future seasons, much like we saw in 2019 and 2020. With Liverpool announcing the signing of Ibrahima Konate it looks like they’ll be stacked with defensive cover, should the unthinkable happen again. This should signal the end of Fabinho’s defensive days as he looks to continually have his name murmured alongside some of the best holding midfielders in world football.

Best moment: Performance vs. Chelsea at Stamford Bridge

Worst moment: Manchester City at home.

Role next season: One of the first names on the team sheet…in midfield!