Liverpool’s ‘best in the business’ overlooked despite Champions League push
On Wednesday night, it was Nathaniel Phillips’ turn to lap up the praise after scoring his first goal for the club and putting on a fine individual display against Burnley. But the quiet presence of Fabinho, back in his favoured midfield role, was equally just as important.
This was his 40th appearance of the season and the Brazilian has spent much of it playing out of position after a spate of injuries to defenders.
But with their trusted midfield general back in his familiar role, there seems to be a positive mood in the Liverpool camp again and that was reflected in their convincing 3-0 win over Burnley.
For the first time since February 13, Jurgen Klopp’s side are in the top four and have their sights firmly set on another season of Champions League football in 2021/22. Yet a month ago, it’s a scenario that appeared almost impossible.
This was the team that had plummeted from top to eighth in a matter of two months. But after putting together an unbeaten run stretching nine matches, with seven of those victories, the Reds are in the driving seat ahead of Leicester City for the lucrative place in the top four.
It is all the more commendable that Liverpool have put together such a run of form, which includes 3-0 and 4-2 wins at Arsenal and Manchester United respectively, with three central defenders out injured.
This season has been nothing short of a catastrophe for the Merseyside outfit after Van Dijk’s injury sparked the beginning of an unprecedented injury crisis.
Joe Gomez suffered a serious knee injury during the international break in November which required surgery, ruling him out for the season. Then Cameroonian centre-back Joel Matip sustained ankle ligament damage to leave him stranded on the sidelines.
Those three injuries not only left Klopp without key players but also without able deputies to replace them. As it would happen, the German turned to Nathaniel Phillips to partner Fabinho at the back, with 20-year-old Rhys Williams promoted from the development squad.
With Liverpool unable to make any signings until January, they were forced to cope with the makeshift pairing of Phillips, who besides a season-long loan at Stuttgart had barely featured at senior level, and Fabinho.
Before Gomez was ruled out, Liverpool were top of the Premier League after 14 games without only one defeat and they were eight points clear of Manchester City. After Gomez and Matip were sidelined, they found themselves down in sixth and an unassailable 16 points behind City.
There is a feeling it could have been even worse had it not been for Fabinho’s versatility. The 27-year-old had played as a centre-back previously with Monaco and also deputised at right-back, meaning he could slot in at the back. But his absence from his usual position, where he could spray passes from left to right, was beginning to harm Liverpool.
It was inconceivable to think that a team that had gone 63 matches unbeaten at Anfield could then go on to lose six straight games in their own backyard. But football is a strange game and even Liverpool were not impervious to enduring a rough patch.
The January transfer window offered something of a reprieve when Ozan Kabak was drafted in on a six-month loan and he partnered Phillips at centre-back. Still, it was a youthful partnership and not without its faults.
But it at least enabled Fabinho to get back to doing what he did best in his role as a midfield general, sweeping up the loose balls and snuffing out any potential threats for those behind him.
Liverpool have been able to control games better than they had done in the early parts of 2021 and are finding their feet in front of goal, scoring 11 goals in their last four games.
It is certainly no coincidence that since he was able to return to his anchorman role, his team-mates — in particular Thiago Alcantara — have thrived. Rio Ferdinand, speaking as a pundit for BT Sport, described the Brazilian as the "best in the business" and revealed how he makes those around him tick.
“Fabinho, his role in front of them is so important, he’s sweeping in front of them, controlling and patrolling that little area,” Ferdinand said before Liverpool’s Champions League tie against Real Madrid.
“Anything that goes into the strikers’ feet, he wins it and clears it. Anything into those two strikers he makes sure he gets close or makes a problem so they don’t just bring it down.
“That allows these two centre-backs to worry about the areas behind. They don’t have to worry about what’s in front, they can always be first to that ball behind.
“It’s perfect for a centre-back, and these are two young, inexperienced centre-backs who need all the protection they can get.”
The player himself is much more humble about the effect he has on the team and refused to take any credit for when their improved form when he features in the three-man midfield.
“We had five wins in the last five times I played [as a] midfielder, [but] that doesn't mean we win the game because I'm there!”, he told Liverpool’s official website.
“I always try to be in the best position to recover the ball, to protect the defence – it doesn't matter who are the centre-backs.”
Having played 21 times as a centre-back this season, Fabinho could be forgiven for never wanting to return to the role again. But his reliability and dependency at a critical point in their season should not be understated.
Now he is back where he belongs and Liverpool are back to winning ways, Fabinho can take his share of the plaudits if Liverpool clinch their place in the Champions League next season — even if he doesn’t want to.
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