Liverpool lost without their lighthouse: Fabinho's struggles expose Klopp's midfield issues

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Fabinho Liverpool 2022-23 HIC 16:9
Fabinho is integral to Jurgen Klopp's game plan, so the Brazilian's dip in form this season is a major cause for concern.

Jurgen Klopp must feel like he’s engaged in a particularly frustrating game of Whac-A-Mole at the moment. 

No sooner has the Liverpool boss bashed one problem on the head, up pops another, ready to disrupt his plans and test his patience. Who’d be a manager, eh?

A season which promised so much has so far delivered precious little for the Reds, whose inconsistencies are such that they can beat Manchester City one weekend and lose to Nottingham Forest the next.

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Off the pace in the Premier League, where they have already lost more games than they did in the whole of the last campaign, Klopp’s side can at least give themselves a boost by securing qualification for the Champions League knockout stages this week.

A draw away to Ajax on Wednesday will be enough to send Liverpool through and, in the process, spare them a nerve-jangling meeting with Serie A leaders Napoli next week.

Not for the first time this season, Klopp finds himself looking for a response from his team.

Liverpool were abject in losing at Forest on Saturday, the momentum built up by wins against Rangers, City and West Ham washed away in quite brutal fashion against the banks of the River Trent.

Klopp felt his side were unlucky, and it is true they had chances to take all three points, but most observers would say the Reds got what they deserved for another unconvincing, error-strewn performance away from home.

Klopp’s problems are plentiful, involving injuries to key personnel, a search for the right balance and formation, a breakdown in his side’s super-intense pressing game and an alarming inability to score the first goal in games, and thus control proceedings.

Jurgen Klopp Liverpool 2022-23 GFX

Perhaps as worrying as anything, though, is the sight of previously-reliable performers struggling so badly for form and rhythm. 

The case of Fabinho, in particular, is a cause for concern. Had you taken a poll at the start of the season to find Liverpool’s most important player, tactically at least, then it is likely that the Brazilian would have featured high on the list.

But he has looked a shadow of his former self so far this season, and his woes continued at Forest, where he looked leggy and lethargic, distinctly uncomfortable against a side willing to cede possession and wait for opportunities to counter attack.

At his best, Fabinho is central to Liverpool’s game, both with and without the ball. “The lighthouse,” assistant manager Pep Lijnders calls him. The one who guides, constantly in the right position, always reading the game and cutting out danger.

“Dyson,” is the nickname Klopp chose for him, on account of the way he cleans up whatever mess is made around him.

For whatever reason, things just aren’t functioning smoothly this season. Liverpool’s midfield has struggled from the get go, and Fabinho has been unable to rise above the malaise.

He is losing the ball more often than he did last season, winning it back less frequently and, despite having more touches and playing more passes, struggling to bring control and stability to a side which is craving both.

It is telling that he did not start away to either Manchester United or Arsenal, and perhaps only the absence of Thiago Alcantara, who is still suffering with an ear infection, will prevent him from being benched in Amsterdam too.

Fabinho Liverpool 2022-23 GFX

Fabinho is likely to start alongside Jordan Henderson, another senior player who has been well short of his best form this season.

The struggles of those two, plus Thiago’s ongoing availability issues, present a real dilemma for Liverpool, both in the short term and beyond. 

They are already facing the prospect of a major midfield rebuild, with James Milner, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all, as it stands, out of contract next summer and Arthur Melo certain to be sent back to Juventus at the end of his loan spell.

Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott are players of rich potential, Stefan Bajcetic too, but it is not unreasonable to suggest the Reds may need to make as many as three first-team signings, and that a complete overhaul of their system could be on the cards.

Given the way the club has operated in the transfer market in recent years, that is a daunting prospect.

So far this season (the Community Shield excepted), Klopp has only been able to field his ‘preferred’ trio – Henderson, Fabinho and Thiago – for 110 minutes, and in both games they started, they struggled to impose themselves as the manager would have expected them to.

Fulham rattled them on the opening weekend, while Leandro Trossard had a field day as Brighton ruthlessly exposed huge spaces at Anfield at the start of October. 

Klopp’s response was to change tack, adding an extra attacking player and moving to a 4-4-2/4-2-4 system.

Jurgen Klopp Mohamed Salah Roberto Firmino Liverpool 2022-23 GFX

“It’s about defending better,” he said, and it is true that there has been an improvement in that regard, with five goals conceded in the last six games, compared with 14 in nine before the shift.

Fabinho, though, has still looked sluggish and lacking in conviction, and the fact that Liverpool have no like-for-like replacement brings his struggles into even sharper focus.

Henderson is a different kind of No.6, and it would be unfair to expect the 17-year-old Bajcetic, or the 36-year-old Milner, to step into such distinguished shoes.

What Klopp needs, rather, is for Fabinho to remember who he is, and how good he can be.

This, don’t forget, is a player who placed 14th on the recent Ballon d’Or list, ahead of the likes of Casemiro, Joshua Kimmich and Bernardo Silva. Kevin De Bruyne and Luka Modric were the only midfielders ranked above him, a testament to his magnificent form as Liverpool chased, and came agonisingly close to securing, the quadruple last season.

As much as Klopp and his players deny it, the hangover from that gruelling and ultimately heartbreaking pursuit seems to be lingering around Anfield this term.

It is there in Virgil van Dijk’s early-season struggles, in the patchy form of Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and Mohamed Salah, and in the dip in energy and quality levels across the board.

It certainly appears as if it’s there in Fabinho, too. Klopp must hope he shakes off his troubles soon, because without their lighthouse to guide them, his Liverpool side will continue to look lost.