Perhaps there is something about the overactive mind that leads it to overlook the most obvious of solutions, even when they are staring you in the face. Far be it from any of us, of course, to tell Jürgen Klopp how best to do his job. But as Liverpool grimaced and ultimately finessed their way to the last eight of the Champions League, it was at least possible to wonder – in an idle sort of way – if their route to salvation was a little more elementary than we all thought. To adapt Mahatma Gandhi’s famous retort about western civilisation: what do we think of Fabinho in midfield?
I think it might be a very good idea.
Playing one of the world’s best screening midfielders as a screening midfielder: genius! And yet for Liverpool in this sad and thwarted season, things have very rarely been that simple. Injuries have bitten hard. The emotional labour of winning the league in front of no fans gave way to inevitable comedown. Defeats and self-doubt have contorted Klopp’s purring machine into a gauche exercise in experimental angst. And so for the first time since October, having shaken off his knocks and been liberated from his defensive barracks, Fabinho was let loose at the base of midfield, and almost immediately Liverpool felt like a more functional team as a result.
Plenty of the post-match reaction centred around Leipzig’s apparent lack of enterprise, the surprising passivity of a team based around lightning movement and thunderous running, and a team who needed two goals to boot.
The truth was that Leipzig tried their utmost to create and crackle, only to run time and again into the bony hips and outstretched toes of Fabinho: a midfielder whose superior reading of the game can occasionally offer the illusion of clairvoyance, a man standing at a vending machine with an endless supply of coins.
For Liverpool fans, the thrill ride began an hour before kick-off, with the announcement of the teams: confirmation of Fabinho’s restoration to the throne. The problem wasn’t that Fabinho had done badly in defence. He was fine. But moving him into the back line, even as temporary cover, had two effects. Firstly, it wasn’t his natural position, and so for all his basic all-round competence there were always going to be certain duels, certain situations, that would prove beyond him. And the other main issue with putting Fabinho in defence was that he no longer had Fabinho to protect him.
That subtle shift was both visible and invisible. For all the glitches in defence, the impotence up front, one of the main problems with Liverpool during their recent cold spell has been that feeling of hollowness in the middle: the sense that over time a razor-sharp midfield had been sanded down into something frictionless, a bit conflict-averse. Fabinho brings refinement and poise, but he also brings a mongrel’s snarl: the awkward contact, the sneaky barges, the tactical fouls. The aerial challenge that won’t win the ball, but will knock an opponent slightly off-balance. The body check that will slow down a runner without quite convincing the referee to blow up.
Fabinho’s influence forced Leipzig into decisions they didn’t really want to make. One of their favourite out-balls is the little 40-yard dink towards the centre circle from full-back: drawing the press to the flanks, and then releasing the ball into dangerous space. Fabinho simply ate those passes up all night, forcing Leipzig to go longer, to play the extra pass, to take the throw-in. For all their possession, Leipzig had vanishingly few sights of goal. How will Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips fare as a centre-half pairing? Thanks to Fabinho, we still don’t really know.
The real revelation, though, was the transformative effect on Thiago Alcântara. For much of his time in England, Thiago has cut a luxuriously lost figure in Liverpool’s painfully stretched midfield: a master patissier in a world where everyone is eating dog food straight out of the can. Of Liverpool’s regular starters this season, nobody averages less than Thiago’s measly 1.07 points per game. But with Fabinho alongside him, the Spaniard could get further forward and simply create: bursting through on goal, winning the ball off Marcel Sabitzer high up the pitch, setting Mo Salah clear with an arresting taekwondo-kick pass.
The Champions League has been a frequent source of false hope for Liverpool this season. Eventually, it’s turned into their last hope: their one shot at salvaging something memorable from this most forgettable of seasons.
Leipzig’s style could scarcely have been better suited to Liverpool’s. The front three are still wasting far too many chances, even if Salah and Sadio Mané both notched confidence-building goals in the end.
But perhaps the real irony was that Liverpool looked far more at home here than they have done in recent weeks. It’s quite a melancholy thought, really: that a soulless bowl in Budapest, with You’ll Never Walk Alone playing on a recorded tape, could somehow feel less alien than Anfield. But that’s the Fabinho effect for you: a team that has looked so adrift now feels quietly, immovably anchored.