When Fabinho went down holding his ankle in Liverpool’s game against Napoli last Wednesday, Liverpool collectively held their breath in the hopes that he would pop straight back up. Two days later, it was confirmed by the club that the Brazilian would be out until the new year. Due to Fabinho’s quality, this is obviously a big blow at a busy time fixtures wise, and so it begs it the question of how Liverpool can deal with Fabinho’s absence. In this tactical analysis, I’ll answer that question and show how Liverpool will adapt to the absence of Fabinho, by looking at Liverpool’s upcoming fixtures and assessing their midfield options.
The requirements of a six within Liverpool’s system
This section of the analysis could also have been titled what are Fabinho’s main strengths, and Liverpool’s other midfield options possess some of these requirements but lack others as we will discuss. Therefore, Klopp must select which player operates at the six based on the game and the playing style of the opposition, as different opposition playing styles will change the requirements of the six slightly and prioritise certain skills.
The first of the attributes we will discuss will be press resistance. This is defined as a player’s ability to retain possession or progress play while under pressure from the opposition. Fabinho is extremely press resistant and is comfortable to receive the ball while under pressure, in order to create better angles for teammates.
We can see an example of this below, where Fabinho receives the ball with a man at his back pressing. Fabinho has a quick scan and recognises a player is pressing intensely from behind, and also recognises the pass back to Lovren is a dangerous one, with Sergio Agüero pressing that pass already. The passing lane to Van Dijk is also cut off by De Bruyne, and so Fabinho takes advantage of the Man City presser running too quickly to press, and simply shuffles the ball one way and protects it with his body.
This allows Liverpool to progress up the pitch through the space left by the presser, where rather than passing Fabinho uses his pace to sprint into the space, allowing Roberto Firmino to remain in a higher position and make forward runs.
We can see a final example here, where Fabinho is again able to evade Man City’s press, using body feints to get round the presser and play the ball through the press. This calmness on the ball contributes to Fabinho’s 90.5% passing accuracy and 78.3% passing accuracy on forward passes.
How press resistant are Liverpool’s other options?
To begin with, we will talk about the obvious options to replace Fabinho – Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. Wijnaldum is much more press resistant than Henderson, and as a result, in games where teams are expected to press Liverpool reasonably high, I expect Wijnaldum to play as the number six.
We can see some examples of Wijnaldum being press resistant below. Here, Wijnaldum drops into a double pivot monetarily to receive the ball from Van Dijk, who plays a progressive, risky pass to Wijnaldum. Wijnaldum’s technical ability is on show here, perfectly receiving the ball on his back foot with his back towards the pressing player, with his right foot in position for the ball to be taken away with a quick burst of acceleration.
We can see another example of Wijnaldum’s press resistance below, this time with two Barcelona players pressing him and two others surrounding him. Again Wijnaldum’s technical ability is shown, with his body positioning and shielding of the ball excellent. He then has the awareness to notice the space left behind and flicks the ball behind him and follows it rather than choosing an easier option in laying it off to James Milner.
Although at times the simple pass back to Milner is the better option, here Wijnaldum breaks Barcelona’s press and is able to drive into space left by the pressers. It’s these kinds of risks that pay off that create goals or dangerous attacks, as Barcelona have less time to recover as they would if the ball had gone to James Milner. Wijnaldum has a pass accuracy this season of 91.9%, with a forward passing accuracy of 81.6%, both very impressive stats.
While Henderson is by no means poor under pressure, Wijanldum seems to have the edge over him in this department.
We can see an example here, from Liverpool’s most recent fixture against Brighton from last weekend. Henderson receives the ball with players pressing from behind, and has a scan and is aware of the player.
However his pass isn’t accurate, and Aaron Mooy can cut the passing lane and intercept the ball eventually from Trent Alexander Arnold, as seen below. The awareness is there, but on times his execution can be sloppy, and against teams that press high this can cause real problems for Liverpool. Henderson’s pass accuracy and forward pass accuracy are 82.5% and 72.5% significantly lower than Wijnaldum’s as mentioned, however, Henderson does receive the ball ten times more per match than Wijnaldum and attempts more forward passes, which does balance these stats out.
So in summary, in games against opposition that are likely to press high or press the number six often and aggressively, I believe it would be in the best interest of Liverpool to play Wijnaldum as a six over Henderson. These games would likely be Bournemouth away, Salzburg away and Leicester away- Salzburg away being one I am particularly keeping my eye on.
Where does Henderson have the edge?
As evidenced by Klopp’s selection on Saturday, Henderson is much more trusted as the six in games where Liverpool expect the opposition to sit a little deeper and force Liverpool to break them down, as happens in nearly every home game for Liverpool. Liverpool played in their familiar style for about 55 minutes of the game, before sitting deep and eventually having a player sent off. Klopp praised Henderson after the game for his performance, in which he showed largely the qualities needed for a six within this kind of game for Liverpool.
The next attribute of a six and the first quality we will discuss is his counter-pressing and defensive positioning to counter-press, which is helped largely by his athleticism. We saw this in action a few times in the Brighton match, as we can see below.
Here we see Henderson providing cover to the Liverpool side, preventing a counter-attack down the side with Alexander Arnold unable to recover from his attacking position. Liverpool’s number six has the responsibility of the first and second third of the opposition half.
Here we see Henderson preventing a counter-attack again, recognising that he has to counter-press with such a large space in front of the ball carrier for a pass to be played. Henderson’s counter-pressing movement forces the ball wide and into less space for Brighton, which delays the attack and allows Liverpool to recover bodies back.
Although Henderson’s performance was indicative of why he is likely to be the number six in Liverpool’s home games while Fabinho is injured, there was one particular situation which I felt needed to be included.
Here, in a perfect counter-pressing situation, Henderson scans to assess the space behind him. However, instead of then pressing to cut the passing angle and potentially win the ball, he instead stays and jockeys to prevent the forward pass, missing out on a perfect opportunity to win the ball and counter-attack. At this point, Klopp had his hands on his head.
Therefore, the pass is played through the largest angle of the counter-pressing structure, and Brighton escape. This was the only real error in Henderson’s out of possession work within the game, but I just felt it was worth noting and probably something Klopp will have been shown back by his analysts after the game or even during.
I am not saying that Henderson is a better counter-presser than Wijnaldum, but simply that in deeper areas I feel Henderson is better, and that using Wijnaldum higher gives the benefit of using him in transition to attack, where he is more deadly than Henderson.
Another reason I believe Klopp prefers Henderson as a six to Wijnaldum is because of the movement Wijnaldum offers, while Henderson offers more in terms of passing. If you reverse the two, Wijnaldum has been guilty at times of being a passenger in possession against deep blocks, and Henderson probably offers less of a goal threat than Wijnaldum.
Henderson is much more effective with his long-range passing, with switches in play a key part of Liverpool’s game. Henderson averages a 53.5% long pass accuracy compared to Wijnaldum’s 68.9 %, however, Henderson attempts over five more per game, which gives some indication as to the confidence of both players in this part of the game.
We can see an example of the typical kind of pass Henderson completes every game, which allows Liverpool to stretch the opposition and try and exploit the space quickly.
Wijnaldum has shown glimpses of his offensive ability for Liverpool, namely in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, and has also shown it regularly for Holland. We can see an example here of him arriving into the box as he does so often to receive the pass, but Firmino doesn’t play it and shoots instead.
With the options mentioned, the other midfielder is likely to be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, particularly if he performs as he did against Brighton. Salzburg and Leicester away could call for the return of the Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner midfield, depending on the form of Oxlade Chamberlain, and this midfield offers massive benefits out of possession but limits their offensive tactics largely to the front three.
The return of Lallana and Shaqiri could also be seen in games at home where they will be expected to break teams down, where a double pivot of Wijnaldum and Henderson could be used, which is something which occurs often when Liverpool struggle to build through a single pivot, which we can actually see in two examples already used (images four and seven). In reality, the difference between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 is while building up isn’t worth discussing, and out of possession Liverpool retreat to a 4-3-3 when they do play a more conventional 4-2-3-1 as they did last season, and so the players within the system are more important. The option of Naby Keïta is also available to Klopp if looking to break sides down, where if he can perform to his best ability can break blocks down with his dribbling, and Adam Lallana’s ability to work in tight spaces is always one which is useful in breaking sides down, and so I would be shocked to not see him used as one of the midfield three over the busy Christmas period.
Fabinho’s injury has come at a busy time in the fixture list, but the fixtures that Liverpool have coming up are kind to them in terms of not missing Fabinho too much, as I have mentioned in this scout report. Henderson’s role in stopping counter-attacks will be decisive if Liverpool are able to keep clean sheets in these games, and Liverpool have got through tight games without Fabinho before. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain their form into this Christmas period, which could be a vital period in their season, as it was last year.
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