May 8, 2021

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How Fabinho’s return to midfield saw the Liverpool we know and love re-emerge – Liverpool FC


As Fabinho shone on his return to his favoured role in midfield, Liverpool rediscovered the balance they will require to push on in the Champions League and beyond.

I’m getting to like Budapest. Move the remainder of the Champions League there and we’d be a nailed-on certainty to win it.

This was an excellent display from Liverpool, against opponents that have reached mid-March still in with a decent chance of ending Bayern Munich’s reign of Bundesliga terror.

While RB Leipzig are persona non grata in their homeland, for the morality of their source of funding and business model, they have an utterly admirable approach to kicking a ball around a football pitch.

It was almost intoxicating to go up against opponents that didn’t automatically flood their penalty area and set up with deep-lying blocks.

Whisper it, but Liverpool’s players seemed to enjoy football on Wednesday evening, or at least once a belated way past the one-time Reds goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi had been found, with 20 minutes remaining.

Even when at their most profligate, Jurgen Klopp’s side were throwing out compelling shapes, with an eclectic collection of ways not to score on offer.

Be it Diogo Jota’s unheralded aerial prowess on an evening when he could have had a hat-trick, or Thiago and bicycle kicks, or the maddest combination of unaccepted invitations for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to force the ball over the line.

Recent events have left us nervous to such situations, and when Leipzig began to produce chances of their own, Liverpool could have been forgiven for going rabbit in the headlights.

There was no need for this, however, as they performed with a beautifully reassuring lack of foreboding.

Balance and variation were key, and Liverpool managed to balance themselves in this one better than at virtually any stage since Christmas.

Fabinho was absolutely loving being reunited with the No. 6 role in midfield, while Jota offered a more belligerent option through the middle of the front three. Occasionally switching with Salah, it meant we were considerably less predictable than of late.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - Wednesday, March 10, 2021: Liverpool's Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' (R) and RB Leipzig's Dani Olmo during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg game between Liverpool FC and RB Leipzig at the Puskás Aréna. Liverpool won 2-0, 4-0 on aggregate. (Pic by Propaganda)

With Fabinho and Gini Wijnaldum doing what they do so well, it meant Thiago was allowed to breathe easily, while in central defence, Klopp placed his trust in Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak, and was rewarded for it.

Confident from the off, there was a perceptible spring to the Liverpool step, despite Alisson being called into early action.

With Fabinho mopping up everything in midfield – cutting out through balls aplenty like some sort of super absorbent kitchen roll, impressively sponging up a split two-litre bottle of water with Juan sheet – it meant that Phillips and Kabak were gifted simpler jobs than they might have expected.

We’ve undeniably missed Fabinho in midfield, and he was magnificent on Wednesday night. Between now and the end of the season, he and Wijnaldum must play every game together in midfield, or at least until any projected return of Jordan Henderson.

While everybody has been transfixed by the shadow puppetry of a revolving-door central defence, it is in midfield where the subsidiary reverberations have been felt.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - Wednesday, March 10, 2021: Liverpool's Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' (L) and Georginio Wijnaldum (R) during the pre-match warm-up before the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg game between Liverpool FC and RB Leipzig at the Puskás Aréna. Liverpool won 2-0, 4-0 on aggregate. (Pic by Propaganda)

Often considered the weakest part of Klopp’s Liverpool over the last few seasons, it is only now that the value of the Henderson-Wijnaldum-Fabinho triumvirate can be truly appreciated.

Without Fabinho and Henderson, the balance of the midfield has regularly been lopsided, arguably a little less disciplined, and lacking in shape on bad days.

This isn’t to say that Curtis Jones, Thiago or Naby Keita aren’t capable players, as they most certainly are, but in a world of greater balance, a Liverpool midfield perhaps needs to combine two of Wijnaldum, Fabinho and Henderson, and one of Keita, Thiago and Jones.

In the absence of Henderson, it leaves us with a need to lean heavily on Wijnaldum and Fabinho if we are to rescue something tangible from what has been a troubled campaign.

Within this, it means a bit of bravery is required in central defence, and that we let the partnership between Phillips and Kabak grow.

There is a lot of responsibility involved for Phillips and Kabak, and while it’s hard to imagine them as a Champions League-winning central defensive partnership, if trust is handed to them, in turn freeing up Fabinho, then superhuman feats can happen.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - Wednesday, March 10, 2021: Liverpool's Sadio Mané (R) celebrates with team-mate Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' after scoring the second goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg game between Liverpool FC and RB Leipzig at the Puskás Aréna. (Pic by Propaganda)

It’s about making your options bigger and flexing what muscles you can.

If Klopp can improve the psyche of own players, then he can turn his attention back to getting under the skin and into the heads of his opponents.

We were a little more meandering in the second half, until the goals came.

It was natural that Leipzig would come at us, and at our most vulnerable the bar was hit, but once Salah made the breakthrough, any lingering notions Julian Nagelsmann might have harboured of testing Liverpool’s nerve evaporated.

It was a wonderful opening goal, from the through ball by Mane, to the layoff by Jota, to the cute finish from Salah. It was a flash of the Liverpool we know, and something we can hopefully see more of in the last two months of the season.

Salah’s goal led to a flurry of changes either side of Mane making it 2-0.

Divock Origi and Keita came on for Jota and Thiago, almost immediately combining to set up the second goal, while the goalscorer himself was eventually replaced late on, as was Andy Robertson, by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kostas Tsimikas respectively.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - Wednesday, March 10, 2021: Liverpool's Sadio Mané walks off the field after being substituted during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg game between Liverpool FC and RB Leipzig at the Puskás Aréna. Liverpool won 2-0, 4-0 on aggregate. (Pic by Propaganda)

One of the most promising images of the night was provided by Mane, not in the visage of his goal, but more in how disgruntled he looked when being substituted.

This was a marked difference to how he almost slumped onto the pitch a game or two ago.

To Wolves we now head on Monday, to see if we can translate a good night of European football into an upturn in domestic fortunes, armed with a potential framework for brighter days ahead.