Ahmed Mohamed assesses Fabinho’s short-term and long-term viability at centre-back for Liverpool after a fine display at the Amsterdam Arena in the Champions League.
We’re now almost a week removed from Jordan Pickford’s horror challenge that effectively ended Virgil van Dijk’s season. The nature of the tackle is tough to stomach, but determining how Liverpool will cope without perhaps their most important player is an even tougher pill for Reds fans to swallow.
After the sale of Dejan Lovren, many felt that Liverpool were playing with fire by not buying a replacement. They entered the season with Van Dijk, Joe Gomez, and the oft-injured Joel Matip as senior options at centre-back.
Additionally, they have a collection of youth prospects with minimal youth experience in Nat Phillips, Sep van der Berg, and Rhys Williams. However, all three are behind Fabinho in the pecking order, despite the Brazilian’s normal usage in the holding midfield role.
With Van Dijk now out for the foreseeable future, how much can Liverpool rely on Fabinho to cover in the short-term? And how will this affect his long-term positional status?
Fabinho has played as a defender a handful of times over the past few seasons, largely to great success.
Notably, I remember him debuting at the position for Liverpool in February 2019 in the first leg of a Champions League Round of 16 match against Bayern Munich.
Impressively, “El Flaco” was able to keep Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, and co. in check in a 0-0 draw. Liverpool went on to win the next game 3-1 in Munich in a season where they would ultimately win the competition.
A few weeks ago against Chelsea, Fabinho again impressed in the position as Liverpool defeated the Blues 2-0. According to LFCData, Fabinho led the match in tackles, interceptions, and passes completed, earning the Man of the Match award.
And once again, in Liverpool’s first game following the van Dijk injury, Fabinho marvelled.
In an away match against a team as organized and competitive as Ajax in a Champions League tie, Fabinho was impeccable. Despite being paired with the out-of-form Joe Gomez and the always unreliable Adrian in goal, the 26-year old didn’t put a foot wrong, highlighted by his goal-line clearance to keep the Reds ahead.
If you go based on his track record at centre-back, there’s no doubt that Jurgen Klopp can rely on Fabinho for the immediate future, if not longer.
There’s little doubt that the former Monaco man should, and will, be trusted over one of the youth prospects in the coming months. The question then becomes, will this become a permanent move?
On the surface, there doesn’t seem much reason for Fabinho to make the permanent switch to centre-back. He has established himself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world and his consistency leaves little reason for Jurgen Klopp to move him elsewhere.
On deeper thought, however, this idea could have merit. Fabinho possesses all the necessary traits to excel at the back: physicality, aerial prowess, and tackling ability. All of these strengths have been backed by his performances both in the midfield and as a central defender.
Unlike many of the other great holding midfielders in world football, Fabinho’s ability to protect the Liverpool backline is based more on his positional awareness rather than his ability to cover ground, similar to someone like N’Golo Kante. This trait should translate well to a centre-back role, as the most successful centre-backs rely on being in the right place rather than using their athleticism to recover.
Another admirable trait of Fabinho’s is his passing range. An undermentioned aspect of van Dijk’s absence will be the lack of cross-field balls to the wings from the backline.
Quite frankly, neither Gomez nor Matip boasts the best long-range passing ability. However, placing Fabinho in this role will again provide Liverpool with this option.
And even when van Dijk comes back, you essentially have the potential of playing two centre-backs with better passing ranges than the vast majority of midfielders in the world. Imagine the passing clinic with van Dijk, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, and Thiago on the pitch all at once!
When healthy, Liverpool also boast an embarrassment of riches in the midfield. With Jordan Henderson, Thiago, Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Curtis Jones all making deserved claims for playing time, playing Fabinho at centre back allows Liverpool to play as many of their best players at once.
Ultimately, I think Jurgen Klopp will feel relatively secure playing Fabinho at centre-back at least until the January transfer window opens. Regardless of how well he plays, it would seem that Liverpool need another player in the position just based on the lack of numbers in the position.
Whether or not Fabinho is ultimately utilized in this role long-term will most likely depend on how he fares over the course of the season. Jurgen Klopp has mentioned that Fabinho doesn’t mind playing in this role, so who knows?
He has shown promising signs as a centre-back thus far, so only time will tell whether his fate lies in this position.