Comment and Analysis @ghostgoal
Why Fabinho is now the Premier League’s best holding midfielder
Watch Chelsea vs Liverpool, live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Super Sunday; Kick-off is at 4.30pm
Last Updated: 20/09/19 11:26am
What makes Fabinho the best holding midfielder in the Premier League? Adam Bate examines the range of skills that set the Liverpool man apart.
"Fabinho, for me, is the best." That was the reluctant admission of Gary Neville on Monday Night Football, his words being warmly received by Jamie Carragher. A little over a year on from his arrival in the Premier League, and after just 25 starts in the competition, the Liverpool midfielder has established himself as the finest holding midfielder in the country.
Much of the focus on Monday evening was on the impact that a centre-back partnership of Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones could have on Manchester City's title ambition this season. City's points per game average with the two men in the team together suggests that they would yield around 82 points if forced to persist with the pairing.
But there is another statistic that should offer just as much encouragement for Liverpool supporters - and be just as worrying for City fans. Those 25 matches in which Fabinho has started have brought 21 wins, four draws and no defeats. Extrapolate that over 38 games and Liverpool are looking at 102 points. The Brazilian has been that good.
That record doesn't even include the game that he helped turn from the bench against Tottenham in March. It doesn't include his contribution to the Champions League success - even covering at centre-back when shutting out Bayern Munich at Anfield. It does include the game he played against Brighton at centre-back, resulting in another clean sheet.
"He has a defensive brain," said his manager Jurgen Klopp at the time, but it is as a holding midfielder that he has really made a difference. Liverpool were already strong - reaching a Champions League final with the trio of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner - but Fabinho's introduction has helped take Klopp's team to the next level.
Even in the 2-0 defeat against Napoli on Tuesday evening, he was impressive, particularly in a first-half in which he appeared to have helped Liverpool weather the Stadio San Paolo storm. Fabinho won more tackles than anyone on the pitch. Nobody won possession more times. Nobody completed more passes. He was Liverpool's best player.
Naby Keita had been the midfielder initially tipped to assume that mantle. Liverpool waited a year for him. Fabinho's transfer from Monaco was very different, surprising supporters and media alike. He was highly rated but not a superstar. "Fabinho could have been bought by three or four clubs but he has turned into a fantastic midfielder," said Neville.
It took time. He didn't start a Premier League game until October. Now, in every sense, he is at the centre of it all. Fabinho's wife told the Liverpool Echo this week that the couple feel like they have lived there all of their lives and that is good news for everyone at Anfield because this is a club that would not want to contemplate life without him now.
So what is it that makes him so good? Fabinho can appear languid, with his loping stride - he's 6'2" - sometimes masking the fact that he can cover the ground like few others players. He fits the energetic approach essential for a midfielder in Klopp's team having run further than any other Liverpool player in all four of his Premier League starts so far this season.
That reflects his role in the side. He is the one asked to sweep around and provide the protection as the full-backs push forward and his fellow midfielders operate in the half spaces ahead of him. Fabinho is tasked with sustaining the attacks and preventing the counters. He does it brilliantly, making more tackles than any other Liverpool player.
Such has been dominance in the centre of the pitch, he has allowed Klopp to be more proactive than ever this season. Opta's advanced metrics reveal that Liverpool are starting their attacks closer to the opposition goal than any other team. Likewise, the stats show that Liverpool ensure their opponents start their own attacks furthest away from their goal too.
Fabinho's heat map this season illustrates that he is doing much of his work in the opposition half of the pitch. He might be the holding midfielder but he is still operating in advanced positions. That only makes it more important that he can play positively with the ball at his feet too. Fortunately for Liverpool, Fabinho is far more than a mere ball winner.
Perhaps surprisingly, he has created as many chances from open play this season as both Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah. Only Trent Alexander-Arnold and Sadio Mane have played more passes leading to a Liverpool shot. "A lot of holding midfield players play horizontally and shuffle across but Fabinho can play vertically with his passes," said Neville.
Although Fabinho's passing sonar shows that a large percentage of his passes go sideways, a significant proportion are forwards too and he is capable of springing the counter-attack. He has played 20 accurate long passes in the Premier League this season - only Alexander-Arnold has hit more than that for Liverpool and the right-back's success rate is far lower.
All of which helps to explain why Fabinho has quickly come to be seen as one of the best at what he does. It has become customary to praise Liverpool's attack. The defence has been transformed by Alisson and Virgil van Dijk. But while City's midfield riches remain the envy of the league, it is Liverpool who now boast the best holding midfielder in the land.