Finding the next Fabinho – Tactical Analysis

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Fabinho has been instrumental to Liverpool’s success for almost four years now, as the Reds have won four major trophies – including the Champions League and Premier League, with the Brazilian at the heart of their midfield. It may not be time for the Reds to move on from a man who has made the position his own, but there is certainly an opportunity to recruit fresh, young talent that can learn the role and grow into the side, just like Liverpool have done with Luis Diaz. We’ve already identified replacements for Liverpool’s spectacular front three, with all of their contracts expiring at the end of next season. Now there’s a chance for Klopp and his coaching staff to make early preparations for one of the most essential positions in the team, giving a new defensive midfielder a commanding mentor. Not only do we need players that can help lead this Liverpool side down a blissful route of more titles, but a player with longevity. So with that, we attempt to find the next Fabinho, that can lead Liverpool to more legacy at the heart of midfield.

Criteria

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Finding a replacement for Fabinho would be extremely difficult without delving into his importance to Jurgen Klopp’s style of play. A unique defensively-focused player for Liverpool within the boss’s high pressing style, Fabinho rarely ventures out from central areas as he holds down the midfield and anchors the defense. The Kop embrace this style of play as it allows one of their midfielders to get stuck in, without causing instability within the team. While he may throw himself into tackles and spray nice passes forward, Fabinho’s role is much more about shuffling with the play, screening the opposition’s attacking players, and holding position as others press higher up the pitch. The Brazilian would be best classified as an ‘Anchor‘ – someone who holds down the midfield line by staying central and allowing others to work their magic ahead. As a result, any replacement coming in should fulfill a similar style of play. We’re therefore not necessarily looking for ‘Midfield Destroyers’ in the N’Golo Kante mold, or ‘Deep-Lying-Playmakers’ in the Jorginho mold. Fabinho makes a low number of defensive actions, and not only in the context of Liverpool’s high-possession. Instead, Thiago‘s the one to get stuck in and fly into tackles before the ball finds its way further down the pitch. Further, Fabinho’s not the one to keep the game ticking with spraying long passes forward or progressive carrying, despite having the passing range in his locker. Instead, the likes of Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcantara contribute in those regards, not to mention the excellent precision of Trent Alexander-Arnold to his right. So as a baseline consideration, we’re scouring the market for defensive midfielders that hold a central position, ‘anchor’ the midfield line whilst screening the defensive four, and have the capability to excel in tackling, passing, and positional understanding. But what else are we looking for?

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Within a heavy metal, gegenpressing style of football, there can be no room for hesitation. Fitness, even for a player like Fabinho who makes minimal sprints per 90, is integral to playing in this Liverpool side. Whilst Fabihno possesses an expert tactical understanding and all the necessary technical qualities to make him one of the best in the world, his physical capacities allow him to completely dominate in Klopp’s high-octane style, in a way that other midfielders simply wouldn’t manage. An aerial presence and competent dribbling ability would also support the player’s claim, even if not integral to the role he plays.

While we’ve already outlined his role in possession as the least imperative of the midfield three, he remains a key cog in Liverpool’s ability to play out from the back. Often the top of the diamond in build-up structures, Fabinho is the key cog that allows his teammates to prosper higher up the pitch. Whilst in possession, Liverpool often find themselves sliding the ball from centre back to keeper, back to centre back again. Meanwhile, Fabinho is always on the move to ensure he is available for his teammates at the most efficient angle. On the ball, he then possesses the top tier technical quality to either keep the game ticking with a simple one-two, or get on the half-turn and spray a long-pass over top of the opposition’s defense.

As Fabinho now approaches his thirties, soon enough he’ll be coming over the zenith of his career, and those physical capabilities may lessen with time. As a consequence (and as per usual), we’re limiting our search to players below the age of 26, just like when Liverpool made the move for the AS Monaco midfielder at the age of 24. This will ensure the predecessor has not only time to learn, but time to cement their legacy in the Liverpool midfield.

The candidates

So with that, let’s now assess the top five candidates to replace Fabinho at Anfield.

1. Boubacar Kamara

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The future is now for young Marseille defensive-midfielder Boubacar Kamara. After spending nearly five years playing in the top tier of French football, it could be the perfect time for him to make his move to a well-established Premier League side. Despite his youthful age of just 22, Kamara has proven that he is a commanding presence in the midfield for his Marseille side. Like Fabinho, he also switched to defensive-midfield from a role in Marseille’s back-line, where he started his career as a centre-back. The Velodrome will be disappointed if they have to see their young warrior go, but with his contract expiring this summer, it looks all but inevitable that he is playing his last few games for the club.

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For Kamara, it’s his fourth season in a row with 2000+ minutes in Ligue 1, and again, he’s still only 22-years-old. Whilst this could cause burnout and stress in his later years, it showcases Kamara’s physical endurance to play in Liverpool’s midfield. The French ‘Anchor’ is paramount for Marseille, as the glue that keeps the defence and midfield intact. Boubacar finds himself sitting between the opposition’s midfield and forward lines whilst Les Phocéens are in possession (just like Fabinho), enabling him to pick up the ball and play long range diagonals to the wings. Out of all his stellar characterisitcs, this is the one that takes the cake. Not only does the Marseille man possess pinpoint accuracy, but he’s often searching for the longer, riskier ball to set Marseille on their way; a major contributing factor to their surge toward second in the league table. With his pass completion rate steadily rising over the years, Kamara has finally reached the 90% mark over the course of the Ligue 1 season. His long pass success has also reached a staggering 77.4%, making him crucial to breaking an opposition’s press. This compares extremely well against the rest of the league as it situates him ahead of the likes of Houssem Aouar, Bruno Guimaraes and even Lionel Messi.

Another essential for the Reds’ future ‘number 6’ would be categorized as winning the ball back through anticipation and pressing. This is a huge facet of Kamara’s game, illustrated by his 41.3% tackle success and 39.7% pressure success, beating Fabinho in both categories. Already becoming accustomed to playing in a midfield three within Jorge Sampaoli’s 4-3-3, Kamara would be an absolute beast to have in the Liverpool lineup. If he can improve upon his positional discipline and aerial dominance with Fabinho as a mentor, he’d make for an excellent future replacement. Further, with Liverpool constantly on the lookout for bargains, getting him for free this summer could be a dream signing.

2. Edson Alvarez

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Eredivisie has provided so much young talent for European football over the past decade and in particular Ajax have been a hub of development where the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs De Ligt and Hakim Ziyech have gone on to achieve success in recent times.

A bit of an unsung hero for Erik Ten Hag‘s side and hugely important to their 100% win record in the Champions League group stages, Alvarez has found himself as chief protector in front of the back four. Excitingly, he has been making 1.9 tackles per 90 in Eredivisie, with that figure rising to 2.7 when playing in the Champions League, highlighting his gusto for the big occasion. Another useful characteristic that the Mexican midfielder possesses is an unrivalled aerial presence, which comes as a result of being above the average height for a midfielder at 6’1 – one inch shorter than Fabinho. Within the past 365 days, Alvarez has won nearly 70% of his aerial duels, ranking within the top 1% of players in his position.

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But even despite all those high-functioning factors, Alvarez’s standout talent is his positional understanding and tactical IQ. He’s often found cruising between Ajax’s midfield and defensive lines, sweeping up the silky dribblers that make it through the safety net of Gravenberch and Klaassen. This is an important similarity to Fabinho’s performances, and arguably what makes him standout as one of the best fits for the ‘water carrier’ role in Liverpool’s midfield three. No one at Ajax performs with the same level of adeptness in dealing with dangerous counter-attacks, and that shines through in the Mexican’s performances. Just like the Reds’ ‘Anchor’, Alvarez also rarely drives forward with the ball, opting to hold position and keep the game ticking instead. Out of possession, he clearly possesses the physical components and tireless work ethic, and already has years playing in a possession-based 4-3-3 under Ten Hag. If Liverpool are not already considering a move for the Mexican, they certainly should be now.

3. Yves Bissouma

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When it comes to defensive midfielders in the Premier League, there are few better than Yves Bissouma. The talented Brighton midfielder would be an intriguing coup for the Reds, and Graham Potter‘s side already seem ready (albeit reluctantly) to lose their star man. With a wealth of Premier League experience under his belt, particularly for a similar high-possession and high-pressing team, there’s little doubt that he would shine at Anfield. Traditionally seen as a box to box midfielder as Adam Lallana sat deep as the ‘number six’ in the team, Yves Bissouma has evolved into more of a holding midfielder this season, playing with two box-to-box pros alongside him in Enock Mwepu and now Moises Caicedo.

Bissouma is a focal point to the team’s defensive set-up, from his role in stepping up during their high press, to his role in screening the opposition’s striker in a low to mid-block. His tackle and pressure success rates speak for themselves at 56.7% and 37.0%, respectively. While possessing all the physical capabilities to roam around the pitch with ease, he recognizes moments to hold a central position and allow others to do their part higher up the pitch. Encouragingly, at 5.75 tackles + interceptions per 90, Bissouma also has no problem doing the dirty work and getting stuck into challenges.

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Capable of being a box-to-box midfielder and playing anywhere inside Liverpool’s midfield three, he’d thrive in the Fabinho position, anchoring the defensive line as his tactical understanding continues to grow. In a deeper role inside Potter’s midfield, Bissouma’s long-range passing has improved by the season. He’s hit 82.4% of his long passes in the league this year, the tenth highest in the Prem, ahead of the likes of Thiago and Declan Rice. As Liverpool often like to spray long passes to Salah and Mane as an alternative strategy to break down the opposition, adding the talent of Bissouma would lift those playmaking abilities in the squad to a new level. With his contract expiring in 2023, Liverpool might have a chance in securing his signature soon, and should be the first to make a move on the Malian.

4. Pablo Rosario

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When looking for Fabinho replicas, 6’2 OGC Nice midfielder Pablo Rosario stands out among the pack. An emerging talent for the Dutch National Team and a key cog in Nice’s 4-4-2 system, Rosario boasts a high passing success rate (87.8%), whilst also managing to play 4.21 progressive passes per 90. Rosario’s ability to unleash balls to the wings is evident, with 77.3% of his long passes completed this season. Meanwhile, holding position shouldn’t be a problem, as he’s developed a close relationship with the more box to box presence that is Mario Lemina inside Galtier’s steady ship. In a possession-heavy team, Rosario also sits at 4.10 tackles + interceptions per 90 this season, which showcases his readiness to win back possession and keep his team in control.

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Without Rosario in their ranks, Nice’s +/-, xG and xA drastically decrease, highlighting his role in the team as the key cog that makes everything else work. But even with more experience under his belt at 25 years-old, Rosario still might need another big move before he’s ready to make a drastic leap to the Premier League. Brilliant at finding pockets of space between defenders and holding down the midfield, Rosario is evidently one of Ligue 1’s vast array of emerging talents that every Premier League club should be keeping tabs on. If he improves the defensive side of his game and his physicality, he could even be a consideration for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

5. Wilfred Ndidi

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Our final candidate may be more in the ‘Midfield Destroyer’ mold than Fabinho, but remains one of the best midfielders in the Premier League after five years with Leicester City. Wilfred Ndidi offers ground covering, tackling ability and an astute awareness of space out of possession that few others in the world can rival. Not only that, but he has five years of Premier League experience and would be an absolute rock in the Fabinho role, ready to challenge for a place straight away. There would be no concerns of having to get to grips with the climate or culture of the Premier League like other candidates, having perfectly replaced N’Golo Kante at Leicester back in 2016. ‘The Spider’ (a nickname he adopted at Leicester for his long leg defending) has been near the top of the leaderboards for tackles won in the Premier League all five seasons, even besting the rest back in 2018-19 on total tackles, tackles won and pressures applied. But what he makes up for in stellar tackling ability, he lacks in possession of the ball – a role given entirely to Youri Tielemans in the Leicester midfield.

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His pass completion is a much lower at 82.4%, with a long passing success of just 64.4%. For Leicester, this doesn’t matter as they look to use the likes of Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and Youri Tielemans to provide playmaking expertise. At Liverpool on the other hand, it is almost a must for the defensive midfielder to bring more options when trying to create chances, as teams often move into a low block against them. To add to his troubles, Ndidi’s completed just 2.28 progressive carries per 90 this season, a substantial difference to Fabinho’s already middling 4.14. This isn’t the biggest of concerns given that carrying responsibilities have normally been transferred off to the likes of Wijnaldum and Thiago, but it’s a massive weakness in Ndidi’s game that would need to improve at Anfield. Nevertheless, Wilfred Ndidi would provide something different for the Reds, and would seamlessly fit into the quality of the team.

Verdict

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Given his unicorn uniqueness as a footballer, not to mention his outstanding quality, finding the next Fabhino is an extremely difficult task. Out of all the prospects, I think Boubacar Kamara would be a real breath of fresh air for Liverpool fans, and the best option for their future. In terms of finances, this deal would also make the most sense, as they wouldn’t have to pay Marseille a penny to acquire his services. He offers a positional understanding and defensive awareness beyond his years, and at 22, would have the most time to grow into the team of all the candidates. Players like Yves Bissouma and Wilfred Ndidi may offer more defensive assurances (for the first season especially), but Kamara’s all-around game already amasses to impressive amounts that will only be expanded upon at Anfield. As an added bonus, he can also play at centre-back, something that we’ve also seen from Fabinho over the years. So despite Rhys persistently pushing for Bissouma, I’ve gone for the young gun in Boubacar Kamara as the best possible fit to replace the Brazilian legend at Liverpool.


So there it is! Finding the next Fabinho, written by Charlie Ellis with contributions from Rhys. Be sure to check out more inside the Premier League, and more in this series below! Thanks for reading and see you soon!

-> Finding the next Sadio Mane – Tactical Analysis
-> Finding the next Mohamed Salah – Tactical Analysis
-> Finding the next Roberto Firmino – Tactical Analysis
-> Why Luis Diaz is perfect for Liverpool
-> Finding Jude Bellingham’s next club

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