Fabinho looks to be the latest big name from European football to be tempted by the Saudi Pro League, and his departure may give Liverpool a pre-season headache.
In 2019, Liverpool assistant manager Pep Lijnders waxed lyrical to ESPN about the role of Fabinho in the team, describing him as a “lighthouse”.
“Inside the organised chaos that we want, that we like, he is like a lighthouse, he controls it… His timing, his vision, his calmness, it gives another dimension to our midfield play,” Lijnders said.
His arrival from Monaco in 2018 coincided with Liverpool going from a team that challenged for the top four to one that challenged for titles. Along with Alisson, Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah, Fabinho helped take Jürgen Klopp’s men to the next level.
However, after Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad reportedly had a £40 million offer accepted for Fabinho, it seems Liverpool will be searching for someone else to provide their light.
To some, it may seem like a strange decision to accept the offer. Liverpool have already had to revamp much of their midfield this summer after saying goodbye to James Milner, Naby Keïta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and bringing in Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai. With captain Jordan Henderson also possibly on his way to Saudi Arabia, losing another midfielder in this transfer window would seem a bit much.
However, there remain question marks about whether Fabinho is still the player he once was. Like plenty of his Liverpool teammates, the Brazil international had a 2022-23 season to forget, with many of his key metrics down on what they had been when he was at his peak between 2018 and 2020 when he helped win the UEFA Champions League and Premier League. Comparing his 2019-20 season with his last campaign, in 2022-23 he made fewer tackles, fewer passes, fewer dribbles with a lower success rate and competed in fewer aerial duels per 90 minutes.
He was still heavily relied on though, with only Salah (51) playing more than his 49 games for Liverpool last season. It must also be noted that – again like many others – his performances improved in the latter stages of the campaign when Klopp changed the system to allow Trent Alexander-Arnold licence to join Fabinho in midfield.
He turns 30 years old in October so you can perhaps see why Liverpool would accept a fee of that size for a player who may be on a downward slope. The general aim of their summer so far has been reducing the age of their midfield and bringing in more energy, but unlike replacing other outgoings with Mac Allister and Szoboszlai, it seems this puzzle might have been forced on them sooner than they’d have liked.
The Linked Players
When reports emerged of Fabinho’s potential departure, four names were widely linked as replacements. It’s safe to say Liverpool fans were broadly underwhelmed, while also a bit confused at seeing four players listed whose profiles are quite different.
Kalvin Phillips has presumably been on their list since his days at Leeds United. Phillips recovered possession at an average of 10.2 times per 90 in the Premier League in the 2021-22 season; the highest average of any player to play 900+ minutes. However, his move to Manchester City last summer hasn’t exactly worked out so far, with Pep Guardiola even calling him “overweight” after he returned from the World Cup. His fitness/injury issues coupled with City’s bitter rivalry with Liverpool suggests that would be a non-starter.
Southampton’s Roméo Lavia had been heavily linked with a move to Anfield even prior to the Fabinho situation – and we previously went into detail about his potential here – but now that plan might have to be changed given it would be a huge ask for a 19-year-old in just his second season of senior football to immediately play such an important role for a team aiming to quickly get back to the top of English and European football.
Sofyan Amrabat impressed at the World Cup with Morocco as his all-action performances helped them reach the semi-finals in Qatar. He won possession 57 times during the tournament, at least six more times than any other player.
Amrabat also played a part in Fiorentina reaching the UEFA Europa Conference League final, another tournament in which no player won possession from opponents more often than him (88 – level with AZ Alkmaar’s Jordy Clasie). He is not just a destroyer though. No midfielder in Serie A (min. three games) made more successful long passes per 90 than his 6.0 last season, while of midfielders to play at least 600 minutes, only Stanislav Lobotka, Leandro Paredes and Nicolò Rovella bettered his pass completion rate of 89.8%. On the face of it, Amrabat would seem like a good option, though with Manchester United also being linked Liverpool may need to move quickly.
Ryan Gravenberch has been talked about as a Liverpool target all summer, but Bayern Munich seem intent on keeping the young Dutchman. There are also question marks as to whether he would suit what Klopp needs from his number 6. Although he has played as a deeper midfielder when at Ajax, that was largely in a double pivot with the more defensive-minded Edson Álvarez (who we’ll come to shortly). Gravenberch registered 11 secondary assists (the pass before the assist for a goal) in the Eredivisie in 2021-22, the most of any player in the division, suggesting he would probably be more at home as a number 8 in Klopp’s system.
It may seem like an underwhelming list to some, but what alternatives are out there? With Declan Rice already secured by Arsenal, Manuel Ugarte having signed for Paris Saint-Germain, Aurélien Tchouaméni seemingly wanting to stay at Real Madrid and Moisés Caicedo appearing to be on his way to Chelsea, who is left for Liverpool to consider for such a crucial role, especially considering they would likely have to go straight into the starting XI?
Many might say the dream signing would be Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich. While ‘dream’ may have previously felt like the key word there, reports from Germany suggest Bayern could be open to the idea of selling their tough-tackling midfielder for big money as they look to find the funds to acquire Harry Kane. Whether Liverpool would be willing to shell out what it would take to sign Kimmich – especially considering he is just one year younger than Fabinho – is possibly the biggest question, along with whether the player would want to move and to a team not competing in the Champions League next season.
Then again, everyone saw the positive impact Casemiro had on Manchester United when he arrived last year, so perhaps investing in guaranteed quality and experience for such an important role is precisely what Liverpool’s midfield rebuild needs. Kimmich was the only player from Europe’s big five leagues in 2022-23 to score at least five goals, record a pass completion percentage of at least 90 and win more than 51% of his duels, showing what an all-rounder he is.
Benfica’s Florentino Luis also had an impressive season in the Primeira Liga. Of midfielders in Portugal’s top flight who played at least 20 games last season, Florentino led in passes per 90 minutes (78.0) and forward passes (24.0), while he was second for interceptions (2.7) and third for tackles (3.5) and passing accuracy (90.1%). Of slight concern could be that 2022-23 was really his first season putting up solid numbers like that, having had unremarkable loan spells at Monaco and Getafe in the two campaigns prior. Liverpool also have recent experience of a player from Benfica taking a fair amount of time to settle in the Premier League.
Then there is Edson Álvarez. The Mexico international saw a move to Borussia Dortmund fall through earlier in the summer and is reportedly West Ham’s choice to replace Rice, but he could tick a few boxes for Liverpool. Many of his strengths were outlined in our recent piece on him, including how similarly he profiles to Man City’s Rodri, though this is only on basic numbers and of course he achieved his in the Eredivisie rather than the Premier League.
There is also the fact Álvarez has previously played at centre-back, which could save Liverpool from having to invest in another defender on top of what they still need to do in midfield. The obvious concern would be if he can step up to the Premier League, but Liverpool haven’t been afraid to shop in the Eredivisie in the recent past, with Cody Gakpo adapting well after his move from PSV Eindhoven in January.
If they wanted someone with Premier League experience, João Palhinha would seem like an obvious target given he made 48 more tackles than any other player in England’s top flight last season (148), though he also equalled the record for most yellow cards in a single Premier League campaign (14). Fulham have allegedly slapped an £80m price tag on Palhinha though, so that almost certainly rules him out. Crystal Palace’s Cheick Doucouré has also been linked, but again the asking price would likely be prohibitive given the Mali international won the club’s 2022-23 player of the season award.
Should they wish to go back to the Monaco well, Liverpool could consider Youssouf Fofana. Only one midfielder made more interceptions than his 56 in Ligue 1 last season, while only five won possession more often than him (265). Over in the Bundesliga, Bayer Leverkusen’s Exequiel Palacios has grown into one of the more impressive defensive midfielders in Europe in the last couple of seasons. No midfielder who played at least 700 Bundesliga minutes won possession from opponents more often on a per-90 basis last season than the Argentine (9.4).
Of course, there is also the possibility that Klopp could see if Alexander-Arnold can simply become a full-time midfielder, but he would then find himself needing a replacement right-back instead, which would probably be an even tougher market to shop in. You would also be moving Alexander-Arnold to a role where he would be tasked with doing even more defending than he does in his current one, which arguably defeats the point of moving him in the first place.
It is difficult to know exactly what Liverpool will be looking for considering Klopp has tried to evolve the way his team plays in the last few years, which could be another reason why Fabinho has been less effective. His skills perhaps aren’t as necessary, so maybe Klopp will want someone with either different weapons, or simply more of them.
Whatever Liverpool decide to do, it will be a big test for a club whose recruitment has been largely on point in recent years. Assuming Fabinho does depart, they will need to quickly identify their next lighthouse to ensure another campaign doesn’t run aground.