Editor’s Column: Fabinho’s poor form in ageing midfield is a big problem

Gary Neville claimed at one point last season, when Liverpool were looking for the quadruple, that midfield was actually the team’s strength.

Thiago’s brilliance, Jordan Henderson’s leadership and Fabinho’s defensive reliability; backed by good players like Naby Keita, James Milner and Curtis Jones.

If midfield was the strength this term, you’d hate to see the weakness…

Many criticized Henderson on Saturday, which is predictable and easy, but he was actually the best of the trio against Brighton. Thiago’s pace was off and he looked physically lethargic, but Fabinho was worse off.

In 2022, the Brazilian seems to have lost the number of things that made him the best defensive midfielder in the world.

Watch this video highlight of Fabinho against Manchester United during our title-winning season. It is genuinely phenomenal. Physical, intelligent, fierce. Tackles, interceptions, driving runs and passes. No wonder he has earned the nickname ‘The Lighthouse’ in Kirkby.

But when was the last time you saw Fab put on a performance like this? Honestly, she’s been a while.

During Saturday’s woeful first half, Klopp gave Fabinho the kind of joviality you’d really hope he left you in the locker room. For what seemed like five straight minutes, the German sent out a series of instructions and went solely in Fab’s direction, which certainly couldn’t have been pleasant in the presence of 50,000 people.

But it was deserved. This season, it’s been so, so easy to play. The Brighton players would collect the ball a meter behind Fabinho, our deepest midfielder, and turn and run towards our goal. His ability to turn around and get back into a defensive position has become non-existent, and he doesn’t stop balls in the first place either.

He’s heavy on the ball and even heavier off it. This started to slide towards the end of last season but has been dismal in 2022/23. Where he used to press, he now sees passes or dribbles from more agile midfielders all around him. Of course, world-class players Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk have also been terrible. James Milner should no longer be playing minutes for the Premier League first team, so this is by no means an exclusive Fabinho problem, but at this stage, it is only right that his performances be scrutinized as such.

So why is this happening? Well, he seems like a physically and mentally exhausted player. Perhaps because it is. He has been an absolute hub since 2018/19 and a big reason why we have won what we have. At 28, he should be in his prime to be a defensive midfielder, but his physicality and concentration have greatly diminished. Klopp has used his best players a lot for many seasons. Playing in his high-pressure action system is very, very hard work. He might as well be catching up with them. After all, they are human, even if they are in their prime, they suggested otherwise.

In addition to this, he is not receiving support in the middle. The midfielder who plays to the right of him, be it Harvey Elliott or Jordan Henderson, moves to the side to cover Alexander-Arnold runs or central deflections, meaning Fabinho has too much space to cover. At his best, he could clean this area with Joel Matip behind him, but he’s not playing well and is being asked to do too much.

However, the thing is that Liverpool have put their eggs in your basket. He has a big contract that runs until 2026.

Now we have to find a way to get him back to his elite best.

Perhaps Klopp should experiment with a double pivot in midfield, placing Thiago next to him and giving his full-backs a little less license to leave them exposed.

Obviously, our high-stakes tactics have been the cornerstone of our success, but right now, they’re just sapping confidence from our players and making it so easy for opponents to play against them. They have been watching him for five years. We haven’t changed, but now they know that quick, long passes into the channels when they win possession will cause carnage, and they do.

Henderson (32) and Thiago (31 and injury prone) are veterans who cannot be relied on long-term, but Fabinho must be part of our rebuild.

We need to buy dynamic and proactive physical midfielders who can support him off the ball and add enthusiasm to him.

It’s time we accept that Fab hasn’t been racing for some time, but also work to make his life easier.

The quickest way to do that, given that the transfer window is closed, is through a slight tactical change where we move our other midfielders closer to him. Klopp will never play from back three, so perhaps a 4-2-3-1 could work, given the number of high-quality attacking players we have.

In the long term, we need to buy at least two and probably three central midfielders. We had an absolute surprise not to do it in the summer and it is affecting the few that we have.

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