‘We all want Fabinho as the No 6’: Liverpool return to right midfield mix to improve both defence and attack

“We all want Fabinho as the No 6,” Jurgen Klopp offered in the aftermath of Liverpool securing their passage in the Champions League quarter-finals. “Defending-wise, it was good,” Klopp analysed. “The last line, the two centre-halves did really well and with the three up front, of course it helps with Fab playing in the No 6, it gives Gini freedom in other areas and this kind of thing. 

“Thiago did well, the front three worked well together, defensively first and foremost but offensively then it worked out as well.” Every positive stemmed from the presence of Fabinho at the base of midfield.

The comment will have drawn furious nodding along from Thiago and Georginio Wijnaldum, who were transformed and less burdened with the Brazilian back in midfield for the first time since October. 

The rest of the squad will have shouted ‘testify’ too, with the team’s structure, control and balance much improved having their best anchor in the centre of the pitch where he belongs. 

It is to Fabinho supreme’s credit that he became Liverpool’s top option in the heart of defence after serious injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez. 

But his display against RB Leipzig in Budapest on Wednesday night spoke to how much his influence has been missed further forward, which offers greater protection to those behind him as well. 

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When Liverpool spotlighted how defensive injuries were crippling them in another departments, it was scoffed at in some quarters but Fabinho provided concrete proof at the Puskas Arena.

His display cannot be solely distilled into the numbers – no player won possession more times nor made more interceptions – given the impact he had on his team-mates. Thiago was given more aggressive licence with and without possession, while Wijnaldum didn’t have to be a one-man discipline machine in the middle. 

Liverpool finally had a midfield that could create, command a fixture and frustrate opponents again.

Fabinho also swept up imperiously to aid Nathaniel Phillips and Ozan Kabak, who enjoyed their most promising showing as a centre-back pairing. It was no co-incidence. 

“I told him on the way downstairs ‘so, you like the No.6 position more, eh?’ He couldn’t show it more,” Klopp revealed about his light-hearted conversation with the Brazil international.

The invariable question is why he wasn’t selected in midfield sooner when available and there will be tactical explanations that Liverpool’s backroom team will understand better than any of us, but it seemed an obvious solution. 

Klopp tagged Fabinho “the best in the world” as the holding midfielder and it’s hard to argue with that assertion. Moreover, it will be hard to fathom moving him out of it again if there are two available centre-backs to slot into the starting XI.

Phillips merits his place there – “an aerial monster” as his manager called him – and the pairing with Kabak has illustrated shoots of positives beyond keeping clean sheets. Their communication and chemistry has notably sharpened. 

Liverpool looked more like themselves in Hungary and Klopp will hope the euphoria and release after the final whistle jolts that winning feeling back into his players domestically. 

“We had to switch off that Premier League stuff, to get here and to give it a proper try,” the manager said. 

“The boys really enjoyed themselves, which is important. We were doing the hardest and the dirtiest work because it was a big defending challenge.

“We want to win football games, we feel it for the first time in a while and it makes a massive difference.”

Mohamed Salah, who scored Liverpool’s opener on the night before Sadio Mane swiftly added another, admitted that scoping out the big picture has hindered the squad.

“The team is not in the best shape but we want to fight in the Champions League and we want to fight in each game in the Premier League and we will see what will happen,” he said.

“We’ve had a few injuries this season, we have been unlucky but the most important thing is we need to keep fighting. I know it’s really hard and everybody can see that, but as much as everybody tries to give 100% and keep fighting, we just need to take one game at a time.”

He added: “We don’t have to look to the big picture because sometimes when you do, we get pressure and we see too much pressure carried on to the pitch. We just need to leave the pressure off the field and just play football.”

Liverpool do not have the luxury of only switching it on in Europe. This version of them needs to replace the hologram that has been operating in the Premier League since the turn of the year.

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