Fabinho's Long-Term Future at Liverpool Might Belong at Centre Back

Oct 22, 2020, 6:30 PM GMT+1
UEFA Champions League Group D"Ajax Amsterdam v Liverpool FC"
Fabinho started at centre back following the absence of Virgil van Dijk | ANP Sport/Getty Images

There's a huge Virgil van Dijk shaped hole in the heart of Liverpool's defence. There's no getting away from that.

No matter how many petitions are signed to get Jordan Pickford kicked out of the professional game for his callous and so obviously intentional, personal attack, it's not going to aid the Dutchman into a quicker recovery.

Yes, Pickford's challenge was clumsy and, well, very Pickford, but it wasn't intentionally malicious. No player deserves time out on the shelf, though, and it's come at the worst time for Van Dijk who has been consistently operating at the top of his game ever since he moved to Anfield in January 2018.

Virgil van Dijk
Van Dijk is expected to be out of action for a while with an injury that potentially goes beyond the ACL | Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Frantically scouting centre back options and stepping into the transfer market in January would be the knee-jerk reaction for most clubs and perhaps it wouldn't do Liverpool any harm in bolstering their defensive competition, but it also shouldn't be a priority for the defending Premier League champions. Fabinho has been the man to step up in the absence of Van Dijk, slotting into a deeper role than usual and performing like a Rolls Royce against Ajax in the Champions League.

It's given Liverpool fans the chance to breathe a sigh of relief after a few days of complete internal meltdown. The Reds' 1-0 win in their European season opener wasn't as routine as expected, with Fabinho and Joe Gomez putting in a composed display to protect the clean sheet and keep out persistent Ajax danger as the Reds edged to three points thanks to a Nicolas Tagliafico own-goal.

Sure, it's only one game and he's going to have to keep up this level for a prolonged period of time with Van Dijk on the shelf with an ACL injury, but he proved on Wednesday night he absolutely can do that. It also suggests that maybe, just maybe, Jurgen Klopp should keep Fabinho in the deeper role going forward in order to get the best out of his squad.

UEFA Champions League Group D"Ajax Amsterdam v Liverpool FC"
Liverpool couldn't quite break down Ajax in their Champions League group opener | ANP Sport/Getty Images

So, why did it work so well?

The 26-year-old has developed into one of the world's most reliable defensive midfielders since signing for the Reds in summer 2018. It took him a while to get going in Merseyside, but when he did, the step up was impressive. Fabinho has moulded into the ideal, utility player under Klopp; a physical presence in the middle of the park who can dominate play and keep up with the pressing game, not only because of his physicality, but also through his reading of the game and anticipation.

In the 2019/20 campaign, Fabinho made 34 interceptions and 16 clearances while boasting an 87% pass accuracy during his 28 Premier League appearances. His dirty work at the base of the midfield allows for Liverpool to play with a boundless energy that sees their full backs overlap, but his passing also tells us just how key he is to starting off these plays.

This is why he can be a success in the deeper role for the Reds; he's disciplined and anticipates the game well, allowing him to keep up with the flow and hold a good position. His physicality makes him a presence in the box, and his passing abilities mean Liverpool don't have to worry about coming to a compromise in the way they play due to Van Dijk's absence; he's capable of starting counter attacks from deep.

Virgil Van Dijk, Fabio Henrique Tavares
Fabinho has a big task on his hands to plug the gap left by Van Dijk | Visionhaus/Getty Images

Obviously Fabinho is not going to kick Van Dijk out of the team indefinitely, as there are flaws to his game too. But things such as rash challenges resulting in a card and the obvious lack of leadership in comparison to the Dutchman are things that Liverpool can manage in the meantime.

Fabinho hasn't played the role of centre back since last year, but his impressive return to the role - where he also boosted the performance of partner Joe Gomez - is again testament to his abilities, and suggests that his future could lie there.

As good as a midfielder that he is, playing Fabinho deeper allows Liverpool to start with a three of Thiago, Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita, getting more out of their £48m Guinean. It also increases competition for places in defence without having to reach into the pockets and struggle in the transfer window. Gomez has come under fire recently for inconsistent performances, and while he looked at his best versus Ajax, he has work to do. An injury to Van Dijk now gives him time alongside Fabinho to show that he's still the man for the job, or it'll prove to Klopp that the Brazilian is the better partner to Van Dijk upon his return.

There's a long way to go and a lot of games to play before we can call Fabinho at centre back an undisputed success. The season is long and the lack of Van Dijk is bound to hurt Liverpool; no player is perfect, and the Brazilian will make mistakes as he adapts to the role. Patience is key, though, and will allow the Reds to get the best out of their midfield depth while also creating some more competition for places in defence.

Should Klopp persevere and continue to play Fabinho in the deeper role, the team will be rewarded with some impressive displays and the German will look a genius once more.