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

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

The genius of Thiago, the leadership of Jordan Henderson and the defensive reliability of Fabinho; backed up by good players like Naby Keita, James Milner and Curtis Jones.

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

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

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

Look at this highlights video of Fabinho against Manchester United during our title-winning season. It’s genuinely phenomenal. Physical, smart, ferocious. Tackles, interceptions, driving runs and passes. No wonder he earned the nickname ‘The Lighthouse’ at Kirkby.

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

During Saturday’s woeful first-half, Klopp gave Fabinho the kind of rollicking you’d really expect to be left to the dressing room. For what seemed like five minutes straight, the German sent a tirade of instructions and anger solely in Fab’s direction, which admittedly can’t have been nice in the presence of 50,000 people.

But it was deserved. This season, he has been so, so easy to play through. Brighton players were picking the ball up a metre behind Fabinho, our deepest midfielder, and just turning and running towards our goal. His ability to turnaround and get himself back in a defensive position has become non-existent, and he isn’t stopping the balls in the first place, either.

He is ponderous on the ball and even more ponderous off it. This started creeping in towards the tail end of last season, but he’s been abysmal in 2022/23. Where he used to press, he now watches more nimble midfielders pass or dribble around him. Of course, fellow world-class players Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk have been awful, too. James Milner should absolutely not be playing minutes for the first-team in the Premier League anymore, so it’s by no means a solely Fabinho issue, but at this stage, it’s fair his performances are analysed as such.

So why is this happening? Well, he looks like a player who’s physically and mentally exhausted. Perhaps because he is. He’s been an absolute lynchpin since 2018/19 and a huge reason we’ve won what we have. At 28, he should be in his absolute prime for a defensive midfielder, but his physicality and concentration has massively dropped off. Klopp has used his best players heavily for many seasons now. Playing in his high-pressing, all-action system is very, very hard work. It might well be catching up on them. They’re human after all, even if at their very best, they suggested otherwise.

On top of this, he’s getting no support in the middle. The midfielder who plays to his right, whether it’s Harvey Elliott or Jordan Henderson, drifts to the wing to cover for Alexander-Arnold’s forward runs or central wanderings, meaning Fabinho has too much space to cover. At his best, he could mop up this area with Joel Matip behind him, but he’s not playing well and is being asked to do too much.

The thing is though, Liverpool have put their eggs in his basket. He’s on a whopping contract which runs until 2026.

We now have to work out a way to get him back to his elite best.

Perhaps Klopp should experiment with a midfield double-pivot, dropping Thiago alongside him and giving his fullbacks slightly less licence to leave them exposed.

Obviously, our high-risk tactics have been the cornerstone of our success, but right now, they’re just draining the confidence of our players and making it so, so easy for opponents to play against. They’ve been watching it for five years. We haven’t changed, but they know now quick, long balls 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 upon long-term, but Fabinho needs to be part of our rebuild.

We need to buy dynamic, pro-active physical midfielders who can support him off the ball and add zest on it.

It’s time we accept Fab has not been at the races for some time, but also work towards making life easier for him.

The fastest way to do that, given the transfer window is shut, is through a slight tactical shift where we get our other midfielders closer to him. Klopp will never go three at the back, so maybe a 4-2-3-1 could work, given how many top quality attackers we have.

Long-term, we need to buy at least two and probably three central midfielders. We had an absolute shocker by not doing so in the summer and it’s affecting the few we have.

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