Fabinho: The Unconventional Final Piece of Liverpool's Midfield Jigsaw

Robbie Copeland
Fabinho is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world
Fabinho is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world

When Liverpool announced the signing of Fabinho in 2018, it came as a bolt out of the blue.

It wasn't that the team who had just reached the Champions League final didn't need to strengthen. If they were to take the next step and consistently challenge for titles, the need for reinforcements was patently obvious.

But in a summer characterised by drawn out soap-opera transfer sagas, this one was completed with no fuss and no prior warning. The Reds were put down in Kiev, and within 48 hours, their preparations for the season ahead had begun.

It was a decisive bit of business but it didn't immediately pay off.

By the time the new no.3 made his first league start in October, there were already questions being raised about whether he would be able to adapt to English football - Premier League fans, naturally, keen to indulge their arrogance by writing off a player who had won Ligue 1 and played extensively in the Champions League as 'not ready' for Fulham and Huddersfield.

There were even rumours of a January exit - though PSG and AC Milan were both publicly laughed off by the player's wife Rebeca.

Starting for the first time against Cardiff City, he had plenty to prove, but didn't waste any time in proving it.

Fabinho ran the show in his full debut against Cardiff
Fabinho ran the show in his full debut against Cardiff / Visionhaus/Getty Images

From the first minute, it was painfully apparent that a player of his ilk had been missing. Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner had been a functional trio, but with no naturally defensive presence among them, they lacked someone who specialised in sitting between the lines and recycling possession.

Liverpool dominated distinctly, winning 4-1 as Fabinho joined Wijnaldum in a two-man pivot that looked unshakeable. He went on to make a defensive midfield spot his own, offering a decisive improvement on a team who had followed up a Champions League final with seven wins out of nine.

At the time, he hinted that there was more to come, suggesting that he hadn't yet fully adapted despite strolling through his full debut without stepping out of second gear. Since then, we've seen why.

Where Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk offered substantial improvements on established positions, Fabinho facilitated a tactical change that had long been necessary if Liverpool's dominance was to be sustainable.

His firm influence has continued over an 18-month period that has seen them claim a European treble and rampage to a 23-point lead at the summit of the top flight. Where their midfield once had to be on the front foot, playing at 1,000 miles per hour to control a game, it is now far more mature, capable of taking charge against anyone, while picking and choosing its moments to attack - and doing so in a far more measured, sophisticated manner.

Speaking earlier this season, Klopp admitted he had been bestowed with the nickname 'Dyson' due to his aptitude in hoovering up possession. It's a role he plays with an unconventional duality; his gangly frame and hunched shoulders giving off an awkward appearance as he plays the game with a mesmerising grace and composure.

What perhaps sets him apart from others in his position, however, is the unpredictable diversity of his talents. As Manchester City found out in November, he has a screamer in his locker, but he is equally capable of picking out a 45-yard Hollywood ball, or alleviating pressure by turning his man from a standing position and winning a free-kick.

He may look like Bambi on ice at times but on the ball he is unshakeable, and plays with a deceptive power and energy he picked up in his formative years as a full-back at Monaco. It wasn't until the 2016/17 season that he was fully converted into a midfield role, but it's no coincidence that Leonardo Jardim's decision to do so came in the same year that Monaco won their first league title in 17 years.

By the time he had joined Liverpool, he had already made more than 200 appearances for Monaco. Close to 50 of those had come in European competitions, while five of his 12 Brazil caps came before moving to Anfield - all of that underlining the silliness of ever suggesting he isn't 'Premier League quality.'

When he picks up his Premier League winner's medal later this season, he will cement his reputation as one of the most accomplished defensive midfielders around, and will do so at just 26 - the very beginning of his peak years.

What's to come is anyone's guess - but as he continues to complete Liverpool's tactical puzzle, you wouldn't bet against his impressive list of accolades doubling in size.

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