All hail Fabinho, the human spirit level of Jurgen Klopp’s midfield

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“I think that a team without a Brazilian isn’t a team.” Of all the many, many things Jose Mourinho has said, this, in isolation, may have been the most wise.

Unfortunately, Mourinho didn’t stop there, telling ESPN in April 2018: “But also, a squad with three or four Brazilian athletes, depending on their profile, cannot make a great team too.” The man living in a hotel added a fittingly Partridge-esque volte-face: “I’m kidding!” Aha!

Jurgen Klopp was more than willing to participate in the joke when the transfer window opened that summer – while Mourinho and Manchester United got busy thwarting Manchester City to the signing of Fred, Liverpool, not content with one Brazilian in the form of Roberto Firmino, spent close to £100million on landing Alisson Becker and Fabinho.

With Van Dijk already in place as the missing piece of the jigsaw of Klopp’s back four, the two signings provided a similar role in goal and midfield. Alisson slotted in perfectly, protecting Liverpool’s penalty area with a forcefield of sheer handsome, but Fabinho took his time to find his feet at Anfield.

Forced to watch the first eight Premier League fixtures from the sidelines, Fabinho’s only start prior to October came in a League Cup defeat at Chelsea. Those early appearances were tentative, getting to grips with the precise science of Klopp’s mania.

In a cruel twist for Mourinho, the game that kickstarted Fabinho’s Liverpool career just so happened to be the game that ended Jose’s time at Manchester United.

With one clipped pass for Sadio Mane to open the scoring in that fateful 3-1 defeat for Mourinho, Fabinho cemented his authority on Liverpool’s midfield.

Allowing Jordan Henderson to move into a more comfortable box-to-box role – which is also the default setting for Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner and co – Fabinho has provided enough balance to the Reds’ midfield to correct the Leaning Tower of Pisa, like a human spirit level for gegenpressing.

Looking back, it should have been no surprise that Liverpool’s brief blip prior to football’s postponement coincided with Fabinho’s struggle to get back to full fitness after an ankle ligament injury saw him miss two months.

In the FA Cup defeat at Chelsea, he was left chasing the shadows of teenager Billy Gilmour. “A shadow of himself” was the verdict of one Liverpool fan site after Watford emphatically ended their hopes of winning the title undefeated.

And as the Reds were dumped out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid, he played all of 15 minutes after missing out on selection to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

But after blowing off any cobwebs in the turgid draw with Everton upon the Premier League’s restart, Liverpool, and Fabinho in particular, looked ominously back to their best in the 4-0 thumping of Crystal Palace.

Trent Alexander-Arnold may have broken the deadlock with a sublime free-kick, but Fabinho quickly became the game’s dominating figure.

His assist for Mo Salah to make it 2-0 was eerily similar to the pass which saw Mane open the scoring against Manchester United in December 2018, with the arc of the ball effectively deciding the forwards’ run, control and finish for them.

One of Fabinho’s rare mistakes came in between the opening two goals, as he argued his case to take a free-kick ahead of Alexander-Arnold, who had already proven his credentials with his earlier effort that drew comparison to David Beckham. Fabinho blazed the ball over the bar and could only offer a wry smile in response.

But the 26-year-old more than made amends in the second half with a thumping straight-laced drive into the far corner; a shot as precise as his assist for Salah, a goal so sweet that we forgive him for wearing the No.3 shirt.

His response this time was much different, his face contorting into a scream as if he still had some excess power from the strike left over, underlining, above all, that he’s not the type of bloke you’d want to fuck with.

After a sluggish run of results from Liverpool coincided with the return of Pep Guardiola’s free-scoring robots, it was easy to sit back and wonder, just as Klopp did: “How is it possible that anybody is 20 points ahead of this team?”

But with Fabinho back to his best, Liverpool instead came out and reminded everyone exactly why Manchester City are now 23 points behind Liverpool.

Jose Mourinho was right all along: a team without a Brazilian isn’t a team.

By Rob Conlon


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