For Liverpool FC these, few spots in the starting XI are in much contention. And that’s largely been true for the past year and a half.
Their prized attacking trident of Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are automatic selections when fit, as are all-world center back Virgil Van Dijk and marauding fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. If these players are healthy and rested, their going to be in the team, no questions asked.
During the 2018-2019 Premier League season, the midfield was the one area of uncertainty. Jurgen Klopp rotated Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner and Fabinho in a variety of configurations, with occasional selections of Naby Keita.
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain returning from injury for this English Premier League, it might have seemed as though the midfield situation would grow even more variable. Yet in the early going, it seems that Klopp has discovered a preferred midfield pairing. And it all starts with Fabinho having made the holding defensive midfield role his own.
In the first six competitive matches this season, Klopp has called on a midfield of Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson in four, with Fabinho and Henderson starting in five. In fact, the only game in which Klopp significantly altered the midfield was the Premier League match immediately following Liverpool’s mid-week Super Cup Final against Chelsea in which he started his preferred Fabinho/Henderson/Wijnaldum trio.
Fabinho arrived as a transfer in the summer of 2018, for a fee of 39 million pounds from AS Monaco in Ligue 1. With that kind of hefty transfer fee, expectations were high. However, he wasn’t their biggest signing of the 2018 summer transfer window, as Naby Keita came in for 53 million pounds from RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga. Yet it’s been Fabinho who has forced his way into being an automatic first team selection, while Keita has found himself a more peripheral player before recent injuries have pushed him even further to the fringe.
Over the course of the 2018-2019 Premier League season, Fabinho gradually showed Liverpool FC fans and Jurgen Klopp that he possesses attributes that none of their other midfield options can bring, ones that make him perfectly suited to providing a shield in front of Liverpool’s back four.
With the system they employ, their fullbacks are constantly pushing up the pitch to menace the flanks and whip crosses into the box. While this makes them a terrifying threat offensively, in theory it leaves them exposed when they lose possession.
Klopp demands much of his midfielders in winning back possession, clogging passing lanes and closing gaps in their formation when they lose the ball. And while hard workers like Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner are industrious, they don’t possess the same tenacity, strength and cleverness as Fabinho.
Fabinho establishing himself as a defensive stalwart in the midfield has also given Klopp the ability to push Jordan Henderson further forward, allowing Henderson to use his creativity in linking up with the front line. Henderson has thrived in this more advanced role, making the squad a more dangerous goal threat while not sacrificing defensively.
Liverpool FC finished the 2018-2019 season as champions of Europe, with the only blemish being a closely contested second place finish in the league to Manchester City. Manchester City remain dominant, but Liverpool may have found their ideal starting XI to capture that elusive English Premier League title.
If so, the emergence of Fabinho will be the key to fully unlocking their potential.