Here’s a wild stat: Before Wednesday’s top-of-the-table clash between Liverpool and Tottenham, the Pool Boys had not conceded in open play with Fabinho at center back for nearly 16 hours. That streak ended with Son Heung-min’s 33rd minute goal, but the point stands that, despite losing the best center back in the world to injury, Liverpool has not missed much of a beat on defense, thanks in large part to the Brazilian. Though Mohamed Salah is back to his high-scoring ways, and though the rest of Liverpool’s vaunted attack has kept pace, the play of Fabinho has been a key part in weathering a barrage of injuries that could have derailed the club’s title defense.
Fabinho was close to perfect in Wednesday’s 2–1 Liverpool win. He succeeded with all four of his attempted tackles, recovered the ball nine times (the most of any defender in the game), and played 92 of his 98 passes accurately. Liverpool’s one defensive lapse, on Son’s goal, wasn’t on his side of the field, either. The club’s No. 3 shut down the left side of defense, a much-needed respite given the presence of talented-but-raw 19-year-old Rhys Williams next to him. (Williams also had a pretty solid game, though he wasn’t even Liverpool’s best 19-year-old on the day; that would be Curtis Jones, who has a shout for being the best Liverpool midfielder on Wednesday.)
When Virgil van Dijk went down on October 17 with what will likely be a season-ending knee injury, Liverpool turned to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip at the back. Reasonable, given that they are both natural center backs, but once Gomez also went down with a long-term knee injury of his own, Jürgen Klopp’s options dwindled. He could either start Williams full-time, something the teenager likely isn’t ready for, or he could drop Fabinho from the midfield into the backline.
Versatility has always been one of the Brazilian’s strengths. He has played at center midfield, defensive midfield, right back, and center back for the Reds, and done all of them admirably. He even got to show off his midfield dribbling skills on Wednesday while playing at the back, taking the souls of Son and Lucas Moura with a pair of nifty dribbles.
Fabinho isn’t the perfect defender, at least not when compared to the man he’s subbing in for. Against Fulham over the weekend, he was lucky to not give up a penalty for what looked like a foul on Ivan Cavaleiro. But even that game demonstrates how important Fabinho has become. Despite its spot on the table, Fulham did not sit back and let the title holders dominate the game, choosing instead to come out swinging. Fabinho and Matip (before he was subbed off due to injury) held strong, only allowing a wonder goal from Bobby Decordova-Reid. That strong defending against a surprisingly game Cottagers side allowed Salah to convert a 79th minute penalty to salvage the point.
Salah, who is tied for the Premier League lead in goals with 11, has been Liverpool’s single best player, and is the main reason why the club currently sits atop the table. But Liverpool’s injury crisis during this coronavirus-afflicted schedule has been the team’s biggest obstacle, and Fabinho’s excellence no matter where he’s asked to line up has played a crucial role in Liverpool’s hurdling of said obstacle. The club is reportedly looking to upgrade Fabinho’s contract to the highest levels at the club, those reserved for the star attacking trio and van Dijk. Given how he’s played so far in an unnatural position, anything the club pays him will be money well spent.