In one of the more stealth transfers you’ll find in modern football, Liverpool have acquired the services of Fabinho from Monaco for the reported fee of €45M plus €5M in add ons. It’s been clear for a while now that Liverpool could do with midfield reinforcements. The fact that Naby Keita is coming aboard for next season should help things considerably, considering he’s about as close to a unicorn as you can find from a central midfielder in 2018. Some have even pondered about how rumored target Nabil Fekir could be sandwiched in as a #8 of sorts.
On the surface, one could argue that Fabinho’s fit at Liverpool makes enough sense: he’s young enough (24) that you shouldn’t worry about getting enough prime years out of his contract, he fills a position of need as a #6, he’s an athlete with good height and doesn’t have cinder block for feet in possession. There have been arguments to the contrary that Fabinho’s passing isn’t dynamic enough, and that while his athleticism should fit in fine, should Liverpool look to a different archetype of #6 to give their midfield more diversity to combat different styles of play they’ll have to encounter.
With all of that acknowledged, this post is basically my scattered thoughts on Fabinho’s game looking at video footage from Ligue 1 this season, just to see how he operated. There won’t be any data involved, this is merely just some eye test observations.
Passing + Deep Area Dribbling:
Fabinho is a weird player in regards to his passing. There will be times when it can look awkward for him and it costs him chances at making some forward passes. He actually reminds me a bit of Tanguy Ndombele in this respect because he also can make it look a little tougher than it has to be, though I do think Ndombele is a considerably more versatile passer in general. Fabinho can be prone to being conservative, opting to pass it backwards towards the defensive line rather than take chances moving forward. But he isn’t totally useless on the ball, and there’ll be instances of his conservatism making way for more daring passing attempts, the kind you like to see from a #6 in a attacking unit.
It’ll be curious to see how much his passing will impact Liverpool next season, for good or bad because it could affect something that Fabinho is pretty decent at doing, which is dribbling in deep areas. While he doesn’t bring so much value for being press resistant because of his inconsistencies as a passer, it is also fair to suggest that he can bring something to the table because he’s good at shielding the ball and can just stiff arm opponent markers should they try to attempt tackles on him. He has good speed relative to his position and also has enough balance so that even when he gets clipped by an opponent, he can still keep chugging along. Sometimes, it pays to be tall.
When looking at these two aspects, Fabinho on the whole comes out okay? I don’t think he’s the savant level of passer that Jean Michael Seri has been at Nice over the past few seasons, nor do I think he’s an explosive dribbler from deep areas that Ndombele is, but he might be able to strike a good enough balance.
This is the section of the post where I’ll be honest in saying I’m not the most comfortable discussing matters because I have no coaching background whatsoever, so this could very much come off as pretentious bullshit. With that said, to my untrained eye, I have my concerns about how Fabinho functions during build-up play. It just seems that he lingers around with his movement in his own end of the pitch, and isn’t dynamic enough in terms of moving harder into open space when the opportunity calls for it so it could possibly lead to chain reactions from the opponent and easier access up the pitch for ball progression.
Take this instance from Monaco vs Marseille in late January. It’s a 1–1 scoreline and Monaco are starting their buildup. Notice the amount of space that Marseille are leaving between their forward and midfield line as they regroup into a 4–4–2 structure, but Fabinho just jogs around instead of positioning himself in a more advantageous way and the possession ends in a failed long ball.
Again this could all be bullshit, but this is a tendency that I have found when watching Fabinho, and what makes it weird is that higher up the pitch, I think Fabinho does a better job of attacking space with off the ball runs. When the opportunity arises, he uses his athleticism and his long strides to get into areas that you wouldn’t necessarily associated with a defensive midfielder. The goal he scored against Marseille in January that tied the game at 2–2 was a perfect example of that, with him rumbling his way into the penalty box. He doesn’t do this often because of balancing his defensive responsibilities, but he can do it from time to time to great effect.
In the grand scheme of things, perhaps this won’t matter at Liverpool. Monaco were a great attacking in 2016–17 with Fabinho logging heavy minutes, and did just fine in the attacking front in 2017–18. He’s going to be on a team featuring one of the best front lines in football along with a unicorn of a #8 in Keita. As long as he isn’t Francis Coquelin, that might be good enough.
I think the greatest appeal with Fabinho within Liverpool’s system is that at 6'2 with the mobility he has, he’s about as good of a player as you can find when it comes to slowing down transition opportunities for the opponent. He’s got good timing with his tackles, and has long enough legs to where you wouldn’t think he’d be able to make the tackle and yet he does. He seems to do a good job in terms of being in the right place to offer help defensively.
The value that Fabinho could bring in terms of breaking up transitions opportunities is real. Liverpool had their problems in this department but were very good during the 2nd half of the season in terms of conceding less dangerous chances overall, and having someone with the athleticism that Fabinho brings could help even more on the margins defensively.
I think that Fabinho, in a vacuum, is a solid player and with Monaco staring at another summer of considerable retooling to the squad (stop me if you’ve heard that before), he’s probably at the point where he should be looking for his next challenge. He played a noteworthy part in Monaco’s title winning side in 2016–17, he fits the age timeline with a number of Liverpool’s key players, and there are aspects to his game that should translate well onto both the Premier League and the style of play that Liverpool play.
The biggest argument that could be made against the move is that perhaps Liverpool are doubling down too much in having athletes in their midfield, and someone who was perhaps a smoother passer would be the way to go even if that meant compensating some athleticism. But maybe that’s a flawed way of thinking about this, that merely finding an athletic version of what Emre Can and Jordan Henderson brought to the table is enough for what Liverpool need at that position: someone who could help to put out fires defensively and not be horrendous on the ball. While I have some level of concern about Fabinho’s passing and how much value he can bring during buildup play, perhaps he provides so much defensively that you can stuff a creative type into the Coutinho #8 role and Fabinho’s issues on the ball don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
The Fabinho transfer left me with some of the same feelings that I had for Nabil Fekir’s potential fit at Liverpool: there are reasons to think why the move could work and that of itself means you can’t ouright condemn the move. Fabinho is a flawed player but those flaws could end up not mattering considering the surrounding talent he’ll get to work with. In the end, Liverpool have done enough good things with their recruitment over the past couple of years to where it would certainly be fair to give them, within reason, the benefit of the doubt when it comes to transfer deals of this magnitude.