In the wake of their loss in Saturday’s Champions’ League final, Liverpool have wasted no time in adding to their squad, confirming the signing of Brazilian midfielder Fabinho from Monaco for an initial £40m. In today’s bloated market, that figure is hardly eye-watering, especially given what the Reds’ largely unexpected run in that competition added to their coffers, but what sort of player is Jürgen Klopp buying, and more pertinently, is he an upgrade on the current side?
After all, Monaco saw several players depart last summer for England, bringing about decidedly mixed results, ranging from the tepid (Tiémoué Bakayoko) to the brilliant, if injury-hit (Benjamin Mendy) to the undecided (Bernardo Silva); despite seemingly filling a need for Liverpool, does Fabinho have the qualities needed to prosper in England?
Formerly on the books of Real Madrid’s reserves (albeit on loan from Portuguese side Rio Ave), the lanky Brazilian came into his own initially as a right-back, playing close to a hundred matches there after arriving, initially on loan, in Monaco in 2013. When a combination of injuries and suspensions forced Leonardo Jardim’s hand ahead of the first leg of their Champions’ League Round of 16 tie against Arsenal three years ago, the manager didn’t, however, hesitate to deploy Fabinho at the base of midfield in a 4-3-3. Monaco won at a canter, 3-1, and Fabinho has scarcely looked back since, becoming one of the most consistent defensive midfielders in Europe.
To be fair, injuries and the sale of Geoffrey Kondogbia certainly aided his cause in allowing him further chances in his new role in the following season, but in 2016-17, his industry and intelligence made him arguably Monaco’s most important player as they won the league and made an impressive run to the semifinals of the Champions’ League. Playing alongside Tiemoué Bakayoko in an attack-minded 4-4-2, Fabinho made his mark with superb ability to cover not only the marauding runs of the team’s attacking full-backs but also the powerful dribbles of the Frenchman, providing a level of solidity that permitted the team’s attacking abandon to function as well as it did.
This season, with Bakayoko gone and Monaco rarely displaying the sort of attacking verve that marked their best performances last campaign, popular perception has it that Fabinho has regressed slightly, as he has hardly been tipped for many end of the season awards, but nothing could be further from the truth. While his passing numbers have improved only slightly, his defensive statistics are the best of his career, and this is despite Jardim frequently chopping and changing his formations and line-ups.
Rather than a statement of indictment of the Portuguese manager, it only underscores how valuable and versatile Fabinho can be as a constant, with his manager doing his best to get the best out of a young squad blighted by injuries, as well as the variety of players that have been his partner.
João Moutinho is intelligent on the ball and has a superb range of passing but offers little of the physical impetus of a Kondogbia or a Bakayoko, Youri Tielemans is more of a number eight than a defensive central midfielder, and the fact that Kévin N’Doram is as likely to line up in central defenxe as he is in midfield speaks to his more prosaic style.
No matter his partner, though, Fabinho has always responded deftly, shaking off what had been a somewhat middling Champions’ League campaign to see his form improve in the run-in as Monaco pipped Marseille and Lyon to the all-important second place.
With the arrival of Fabinho and Naby Keita, Liverpool are unlikely, then to move away from the 4-3-3 that they have employed to much success in the season that’s just finished. Much of Liverpool being undone on occasion this season stemmed from the fact that Jordan Henderson, despite a fine work-rate, is a somewhat limited player and never really an orthodox defensive midfielder.
While Henderson’s style does, in many respects, suit Klopp’s pressing, and he has a better range of passing than the Brazilian, there is little argument to be made that Fabinho is a more natural midfield anchor, particularly with the attacking play of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson necessitating a somewhat quicker presence in offering cover.
Too, with a more natural defensive presence in front of the defence, Liverpool can also look to successfully integrate a more creative player into their midfield three, implicitly replacing the ability on the ball that was lost with the departure of Philippe Coutinho in January. Nabil Fékir and Thomas Lemar continue to be linked heavily with the club, but neither is really suited to playing in a midfield three without a natural number six behind them, making Fabinho’s arrival a necessary step towards injecting more raw creativity into a side that could stumble against sides that sat deep.
Even if Liverpool don’t further add to their squad, Fabinho’s presence would also allow more freedom for the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita, enabling the team to be even more direct, if required by the occasion. Thus, with Fabinho in the fold, Liverpool can potentially look to play with even more dynamism and attacking intent, allowing Klopp’s already hyper-intense style to reach yet another level.