Fabinho, Keïta, and finding the new partner to complete Liverpool’s new-look midfield

Following the disappointment of a Champion’s League final defeat to Real Madrid at the end of May, Michael Edwards and Jürgen Klopp wasted no time improving the squad with the signing of Monaco defensive midfielder Fabinho. With rumors of a Nabil Fekir move flying and the imminent arrival of Naby Keita, Liverpool fans, myself included, could hardly wait for Matchday 1 to see this midfield. And yet, in somewhat typical Liverpool fashion, the Nabil Fekir transfer hit a snag. The news came quickly, and soon Liverpool fans had realized that the transfer had been botched in epic fashion with the club attempting to use leverage that did not exist. While there is a faint hope that the transfer could still occur, angering the notoriously stubborn Lyon president Aulas has the transfer seemingly dead in the water. Thus, Liverpool ought to cut its losses, move on, and find a better fit for their squad. Yes, there are better fits for Liverpool, a couple of them at that. First, however, it is necessary to understand what a Keita-Fabinho partnership looks like and offers for this Liverpool side, regardless of whether or not a more attack minded player is signed to join them.

With Keïta and Fabinho partnering in the midfield, Liverpool will have at least 2 midfielders that are incredibly versatile in their abilities to start the attack and slow down the opponent. Fabinho cuts an imposing figure at 6’2, but his size belies his elegance, passing ability, and chance creation. Starting 26 games at defensive midfield, Fabinho will likely slide into Jordan Henderson’s spot in the team, although he is also able to play the #8 role for Liverpool as well. Compared with the current Liverpool DM, the two offer similar defensive attributes, although Fabinho did win more tackles and interceptions than the current captain. Fabinho’s real advantage, however, comes when starting the attack as he completed more key passes, created more chances, and gathered more assists than Henderson per match throughout the season. Fabinho’s ability to create from deep for his teammates grants him a dynamism not provided with Jordan Henderson, and his passes will play perfectly into Liverpool’s pacey trident on the counter attack. The squad’s other midfield signing, Naby Keita, is a different beast entirely. With over 3 successful take ons per 90 minutes , the diminutive midfielder offers a dynamic dribbling ability from the midfield that Liverpool has been missing in recent years. While Coutinho was an incredible dribbler, his best work in taking on defenders came from drifting inside, rather than bursting through the middle of the park. Keita was also able to contribute 6 goals and 5 assists in just 23 starts, the majority of which came from a defensive midfield position for RB Leipzig. His ability to score, create, and defend will be useful to Klopp’s high pressure system. Additionally, the presence of Fabinho behind him will allow Keita to take better advantage of his attacking abilities.

Unfortunately for the Merseyside club, one of their best options to complete this midfield, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, will be rehabbing until November at the earliest. His strength and creativity would flourish with more freedom granted by Fabinho and Keita’s defensive prowess. However, through the group stage of the World Cup, a few interesting developments may have granted Liverpool options without having to break the bank. Henderson’s form and leadership for England will put the pressure on Jürgen Klopp to keep the midfielder in the team. There is no debating his influence on the club this year as a leader and a key player, and I believe he deserves a role in the team, but at what cost. Klopp could accommodate Henderson by moving both Fabinho and Keita into the #8 role and dropping Henderson into the #6. Additionally, Keita could sit in front of the other two as a playmaker. Another very intriguing possibility has come from watching Senegal, as Sadio Mané has constantly dropped deep to create plays for his team. This is something we also witnessed after Coutinho’s departure, with the winger playing great passes as he cut inside and even dropped deeper at times. Could Mané work as an attacking midfielder just in behind Firmino? I believe it could work, but it is not ideal given Firmino’s tendencies to drop very deep and play passes through. Having said that, the ideal target for Liverpool would be someone who could work as a winger as a backup for Salah and Mané, while still being able to play the creative role when both current wingers are starting and interchange with Mané for rest or to confuse defenses. The player who fits this profile the best is the young American Christian Pulisic. Having shown the ability to start on the wing for Dortmund and play as the Creator-in-chief for the USMNT, he would be the perfect player to start alongside Fabinho and Keita with an ability to create, as well as providing respite for the wingers. If the Sadio Mané as a converted playmaker were to be exercised, Liverpool could turn to Gelson Martins who may be available on a free, Hirving Lozano, or perhaps former winger Suso to allow Mané to play the playmaker role. A back up winger is likely necessary for Salah and Mané, and the acquisition of one would allow Henderson to start some games, with Klopp able to experiment with Mané in others. While the Fekir transfer may still be revived, I don’t believe he is the best option to compliment the front 3 due to his false-9 style that may interfere with Firmino if started together. No matter who is signed, the club is set to have a very impressive midfield to match their attack for the 2018-19 season.

By: Jack Ashby

Photo: Getty