It was about halfway through the first half of Liverpool’s defeat to Leeds at Anfield last Saturday that Fabinho made his feelings known to the crowd. The hosts had once again failed to string some passes together and as the ball drifted out of play there came groans from the Kop. Hearing this, Fabinho turned to the stand and began waving his arms in a call for support, doing so aggressively and with a snarl on his face. He clearly was not happy and neither were those watching on, with a fair few making that clear to him.
It was an ugly moment during another ugly occasion for Liverpool this season and in its own way a snapshot of Fabinho’s campaign in particular. To put it bluntly, he has been poor, consistently failing to provide the deep-lying midfield security that has been a hallmark of the his displays since his arrival from Monaco four years ago. In a malfunctioning side he has arguably malfunctioned the most and will no doubt be as furious and frustrated with that as anyone. What happened against Leeds felt like a case of those emotions rising to the fore.
Fabinho has not been injured this season, starting 15 of Liverpool’s 19 games in all competitions and coming on as a substitute in the other four, but neither has he looked fully fit. As is the case with so many of his teammates, there has been a severe drop-off in intensity and dynamism, perhaps best summed up by the fact that in his last eight appearances he has won one tackle. That single statistic does not tell the full story, and it should be noted that in the same period he has completed 12 interceptions, four more than in his previous 11 games. But it is still reflective of a player who is a shadow of his brilliant best.
“Fabinho’s downturn in form seems to go back to his thigh injury before last season’s Champions League final. Was he rushed back too soon?” says Matt Ladson, the editor of This Is Anfield. “Because the issue with him this season seems to be about mobility. He doesn’t get to challenges and he can’t recover ground when turned.
“Watch him in person and you’ll see balls where he just doesn’t close the space anywhere near as quick as he used to. It isn’t helped when others around him are off form themselves.”
That much is undeniably true, with the gruelling and ultimately devastating pursuit of last season’s unprecedented quadruple affecting the squad. Jürgen Klopp’s players are clearly fatigued, mentally as well as physically. But while some have been able to hit pause, Fabinho has had no choice but to keep going, largely because of the number of injuries suffered by Liverpool’s other midfielders, something Klopp admitted in the buildup to Sunday’s visit to Tottenham has had a detrimental impact on the Brazilian.
“In a long career players have dips and usually you solve it by playing less often, but in our situation Fab had to play through everything,” he said. “If we had more options then we would use it to give him the chance to recover from the last game. It is how it is.”
Fabinho certainly looks like a player who could do with a rest – something he is not going to get for a while given he is part of Brazil’s squad for the World Cup – but it also cannot be ruled out that his issues go deeper than that. After all, this is a player who is edging towards his 30th birthday having been a consistent figure for one of the most full-on teams of modern times. Few have run, pressed and imposed themselves more during the Klopp era than the man with No 3 on his back and, quite simply, he may be out of gas.
That is how it has looked this season and in that sense Fabinho has become a symbol among Liverpool supporters of a broader decline at the club that can only be solved with major reinvestment. Out with the old, in with the new, and no more so than in midfield given the general wear and tear, through age and exertion, in that part of the team. The man most fans want is Jude Bellingham, with reports in Germany this week suggesting Liverpool are determined to sign the 19-year-old next summer. Whether they will be able to, given his ever-rising profile and price, allied to the team’s struggles, is another matter.
For now, Liverpool must make do with what they have as they travel to north London seeking to keep alive their hopes of finishing in the top four with what would be a first away league win of the season. It will not be easy against a Spurs side buoyed up by their Champions League victory at Marseille on Tuesday, but the visitors can certainly take hope from their victory over Napoli in the same competition on the same night.
It may have been something of a dead rubber but they performed well against the leaders of Serie A, in part because of the manager’s switch back to 4-3-3, having used various versions of 4-4-2 in recent weeks in order to improve his team’s fortunes.
And while he was hardly outstanding, Fabinho certainly looked more comfortable and assured in a tried and tested system. “The game was a clear sign of Fabinho how we know him,” said Klopp. “For him it was important to realise that was possible as well, and that was a good start in the right direction.”