As part of a new series, I’ll be taking a look at one player’s performance during Liverpool’s most recent match. Specifically, the statistics behind the performance; whether he was brilliant, diabolical or misunderstood.
In the case of Fabinho v Fulham, it’s almost certainly the latter.
For starters, here’s a quick run-down of Fabinho’s basic stats from the game:
Passes – 80 – 90% success
Touches – 94 (most by non-defensive player)
Clearances – 2 (bettered only by van Dijk with 5)
Interceptions – 2 (bettered only by Robertson with 3) a quarter of all Liverpool interceptions (8)
Loss of possession (failed take on attempt or bad touch) – 1 (from a team total of 31)
Times dispossessed (tackled without attempting dribble) – 0
Attempted tackles – 2 – 100% success, neither resulted in winning possession.
When Liverpool signed Fabinho, there was the apparent expectation that he would fill the role of defensive midfielder; a man whose job is to occupy the space in front of the back four, to disrupt play, make a nuisance of himself, and generally make life difficult for the opposition in their attacking third. As I’ve mentioned before, this has not been the case.
Here is his heat-map from the game:
Fabinho spent the vast majority of the game within the centre-circle and pushing out toward the offensive third of the pitch. It’s not a defensive midfielder’s position, even when his team holds 73% of possession as Liverpool did.
I am not in the habit of using terms like ‘box-to-box’, ‘holding’ or ‘destroyer’ to categorize a player. Although those terms do apply to certain players within certain teams; the fluid, interchanging system adopted by Klopp means that individual players are very hard, if not impossible, to pigeon-hole into a specific role.
If I were to do this with Fabinho for the single and isolated game against Fulham – it’s as a balanced midfielder, and here’s why.
A BALANCED MIDFIELDER
Twelve.football have an algorithm to determine match effectiveness through assigning points to certain match actions (you can read about this one on their website). Here are the top 5 performers from the Fulham game:
Forget, for a moment, the defenders – who were our top performers overall, and forget Salah and Shaqiri, whose shots and goals elevated them to match-winners. Take a look at number 5.
It isn’t too common for a player to have almost equal attacking (green) and defensive (red) values. Fabinho is almost matched in this regard by Robertson, possibly our best player.
A further look at the Brazilian’s specific match actions paints a clearer picture of this:
The circles each represent specific offensive actions (mostly accurate passes) and the more solid the circle, the more points are assigned to them – reflecting their effectiveness.
Fabinho was everywhere. The solitary cross was a negative offensive action, in this case a failed dribble.
Now take a look at his defensive action:
There were less instances overall, which is understandable considering the amount of time Liverpool spent in possession. Notice all but two of the positive actions here are solid circles, this indicates the effectiveness of his defensive play.
In his own half, 4/7 of these were ball recoveries (1 interception, 1 clearance and 1 won aerial dual). In the offensive half, a place where Liverpool tend to perform a lot of defensive work, 4/6 actions were also ball recoveries. Attacking the fifty-fifty and winning loose balls has become a specialty for Fabinho.
OFF THE BALL
This is, in my opinion, the most underrated of all match action. ‘Off the ball’ action is indicative of what Fabinho was initially expected to bring to Liverpool – the hassling, the tenacity, the ability to force errors and make life difficult for the opposition players while they are in possession. It’s basically how well a player performs the press.
19/20 of these were applying pressure on an opponent’s pass. For the sake of context, here are Liverpool’s top 5 in this area from the Fulham game:
Notice that 4/5 of these are defenders. In fact, if you look at the top 5 average from every league game you will find the same; this aspect of play tends to be dominated by defenders.
There are midfielders who excel in this area; the likes Ndidi, Doucoure and Capoue are a few examples. But most of the points here are scored in pressuring shot-takers and that is, understandably, a position that defenders most often find themselves in.
Wijnaldum is usually our man for the midfield press, but against Fulham he was noticeably behind Fabinho in terms of match action, despite often occupying a deeper, more defensive position.
Here are the top 3 players in terms of offensive input v Fulham:
It has become the standard when playing deep, defensive teams at Anfield that much of Liverpool’s penetration and forward gains are made through pushing up our wing-backs. This was especially true against Fulham as Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were our two best attacking contributors, making an assist each.
Their heat-map further show their willingness to push into attacking positions:
Much of our build up in games like these begin from deep, this is typified by the fact that fourth in this list is van Dijk. Here’s a PassSonar (courtesy of @Ben8t) which further highlights this:
When Liverpool were in possession, the centre-backs sat on the half way line and looked to pass out wide. This mostly, during many games this season, happens through van Dijk. His long passes were wide towards Trent Arnold, and the short to mid-range passes to Robertson. With very little going directly forward into the midfield.
All four of the defenders were head and shoulders above their team-mates in terms of touches (van Dijk – 122, Robertson – 116, Alexander-Arnold – 98, Gomez – 93). All except one notable player – Fabinho, who had 94 touches. A full 28 more than his partner, Wijnaldum.
The ball wasn’t going into a central position all too often, but when it did – it went to Fabinho.
But what did he do with the ball?
We can see that the most favoured pass from Fabinho was a short pass out wide and forward, mostly towards a willing runner in either Mane or Robertson. A mid-range pass out wide was the next most popular choice to find Shaqiri, Wijnaldum or Arnold on the right flank. There were a number of forward long passes into Salah but these were by no means his ‘out’.
As mentioned before, his 80 passes were made with a 90% success rate. While it is true that a majority of his passes were short, most were positive and led to advancement.
This map shows passing interaction between players after at least 5 passes were made:
Wijnaldum occupies a position on the right, which is likely a tactical move to open space on the left. The main ball for Gomez was to van Dijk (as highlighted in the sonar) but when Gomez played the ball forward, it was usually to Wijnaldum. There was less inter-play on the right side as the space was tighter and usually led to a longer ball into either Shaqiri or Salah (as with the first goal).
It was in the central position where Fabinho shone. We can see his average position here (as also shown in his heatmap) is very central. Though he played as part of a midfield pair, the Brazilian occupied the central space behind Firmino on his own.
He became the focal point for the unfavoured forward central pass by van Dijk. He provided the option as a link if the usual wide pass wasn’t on.
It was in this position where he demonstrated his ability as, not only, a capable attacking force in the midfield, but also his ability to press and hassle, as I previously mentioned.
He set himself perfectly to use his own ability (both technical and physical) to leave his mark on the game. Whether this was tactical nous by Klopp, or Fabinho’s own great self-awareness and understanding of his own ability; we’ll never know.
But what I do know is – we have a very talented, adept and promising player on our hands. He didn’t carve open the Fulham defense, or make goal saving, last ditch tackles; but if a footballer can do the simple things well, and understands themselves to the extent that Fabinho did against Fulham, the ceiling for that player becomes very high.