There was a moment at Anfield on Wednesday evening when something very rare happened when a player in red became a personal favourite in a way that transcends all normality. I suspect I wasn’t alone in making such a connection but for a fleeting second the 53,023 others present were irrelevant to my enjoyment of the evening. It was, extatically just me, Fabinho Tavares and that delicious scooped pass over the ailing Red Star defence making a very personal connection.
It was the sort of connection that made me want to rush out this morning and buy a No3 shirt and a pair of pink boots. That footballing cupid strikes again!
Wednesday evening hadn’t started well. Wednesday’s in my current working life do not sync well with home champions league games and so, as I crawled out of Manchester, dawdled along the entire length of the M62 and gridlocked my way up Queens Drive my mood was not one of anticipating enjoyment just hope that I would get there in time.
Listening to the Tottenham game on the radio during my two and a half hour commute didn’t lighten my mood either. They were struggling to exert their evident superiority over PSV, albeit away from home and that normal tension any supporter feels pre-match tightened a notch.
But from the outset this was a Liverpool performance much more aligned to the joyous displays of last season. Free-flowing counter attacks and controlled counter-pressing created an atmosphere of positivity in the strange Anfield atmosphere resulting from there being no visiting supporters. A display that rendered concerns over the result irrelevant and allowed me to watch the game in a different way.
Joe Gomez, who now his own song, was imperious back at centre back. Allison and Virgil were in “slippers and pipe” mode while Xherdan, Gini and Bobby buzzed around midfield. Shaqiri was at his Southampton level, involved in everything, wanting to be involved in even more and linking with Salah and Firmino effortlessly. The only downside was a Sadio Mane performance which gave me the impression that he didn’t want to be there. I’m hoping that we aren’t seeing for the second season running the curse of a want away no 10?
But I digress. This a joyous piece not a Freudian introspective. Liverpool were more coherent, linking better, moving the ball to the final third much more quickly, looking like their normal selves. Why? How?
The answer was the one-man midfield that is Fabino. Within a matter of minutes he was everywhere, integral to everything Liverpool were doing. One minute he was splitting the centre halves, the next linking with Firmno on the edge of the Serbian’s penalty area, the next nipping in to regain possession. And that’s the thing, he can tackle has that bite which will make many Premier League opponents wary of the physical challenge but he can also read the play to intercept with ease.
I’m not the most tolerant of supporters at the game. I get easily annoyed by comments made around me so, after 20 minutes of easing into Liverpool’s midfield and starting to look worth every Euro we paid for him in the summer my head nearly exploded at the comment from the row behind me – ‘he’s a bit off the pace that Fabinho isn’t he? He needs to realise this isn’t the French League ya know.’
Yes Fabinho has taken time to convince Klopp to start him, yes he has been the bittiest of bit-part players so far but after 20 minutes of linking, running, integrating it was clear that our new number 3 is a difference maker. Not only was the accusation unmerited it was hopelessly wide of the mark. He isn’t off the pace, he plays the game at his pace and was beginning to dictate that to his teammates.
When Liverpool signed Fabinho in the summer those who watch French football were purring in their praise, convinced that he would add to Liverpool’s midfield, be integral to how Liverpool will play in the future. And while this is only a small sample size, the 90 minutes on Wednesday night demonstrated what he brings and will bring.
I actually wondered if Jürgen had cunningly cloned Fabinho at one point in the second half as he seemed to be in several places at once. That deceptive yet stealthy speed is a huge asset in any player at the top level and Fabinho, who looks ungainly at times, appears to be able to read the play to be one step ahead.
There was one moment in the second half which sealed the deal for me. Virgil had won the ball in defence, dropped a shoulder and found himself with some space to move into. Fabinho didn’t just watch the big fella go past him, he slipped back into the left-sided centre half role. It was done so quickly and so unobtrusively that it was almost as if it hadn’t happened but it did and it was wonderful to see.
But remember this is only one part of the shape of things to come in Liverpool’s midfield. Fabinho has clearly been bought to play alongside Naby Keita. When we get the fully fit, fully integrated Keita there are going to be a lot of midfields across Europe scratching their heads and wondering what hit them.