In this remarkable, challenging season, Liverpool have used centre-back pairings their fans couldn’t have possibly dreamed up at the start of the campaign.
Jurgen Klopp has deployed 14 different combinations at the heart of his defence across the Reds’ 28 matches. However, while there have been numerous different duos stationed at centre-back, one thing has remained largely consistent – the players chosen have stuck to the right and left berths throughout their time together.
Aside from Rhys Williams and Fabinho switching from their usual sides together for the final five minutes of the 2-0 defeat to Atalanta, there hadn’t been any positional changes made within the centre-back pairings.
Until Sunday, that is. For the visit of Manchester United, Fabinho played on the right side of the defence with Jordan Henderson to his left, when they had occupied the opposite slots within the team for the previous league match with Southampton.
And to the naked eye, they certainly seemed to work better against United. Despite their inexperience as a unit, Liverpool’s backline caught the visitors offside on eight occasions. It was the most times they’d erred in a league match since they were flagged 10 times by the linesmen in a defeat to Tottenham way back in January 2018.
So was it a tactical masterstroke by Klopp to switch the centre-backs? It certainly seemed to catch Ole Gunnar Solskjaer unawares. The United manager placed Paul Pogba on the right of the attacking trident behind the front man for the first time this season, presumably with the idea that the combined talents of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford on the left could target Henderson.
While it was a reasonable assumption for Solskjaer to make, Fabinho has more experience on the right of the defence than Henderson does. As much as Liverpool’s number three has predominantly played on the left of the central two this season, he was on the right for approximately a quarter of his time served back there.
The most notable instance occurred at Stamford Bridge. The Brazilian largely stifled any influence Timo Werner might have had upon proceedings as Liverpool kept a clean sheet and won the match. And aside from the aforementioned cameo against Atalanta, Fabinho had always played on the right side when he was the junior partner (in centre-back terms) alongside Joe Gomez or Virgil van Dijk.
Yet despite just three starts in central defence prior to 2020/21, the defensive midfielder has been cast into the role of the senior centre-back when his partner has been the Liverpool captain. Whether Klopp guessed the switch Solskjaer was to make with Pogba or not, only he knows, but it certainly worked out well.
And while his primary role was obviously a defensive one, it enabled Henderson to get into the match more than he had at St Mary’s Stadium two weeks earlier. Having made just one progressive carry and dribbled the ball 157 yards against Southampton ( via FBRef ), the skipper recorded figures of eight and 276 respectively in the clash with United.
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Being able to advance up the pitch enabled Henderson to find Thiago Alcantara in the final third, and from that the former Bayern man brought a fine save out of David de Gea, with what would prove to be Liverpool’s final shot on target of the match.
Whether the positional switch worked for Fabinho is up for debate, but he did make four interceptions – his joint-most of 2020/21 – and blocked two shots when he’d previously thwarted five across the whole season ( per WhoScored ). He wasn’t put under more pressure than usual either, as United had the eighth fewest final third touches by a team facing Liverpool this season ( per FBRef ).
With Joel Matip on the brink of returning to full fitness – not that the longevity of that situation can be taken for granted – we may not see the combination of Fabinho and Henderson too often again in future. They have certainly demonstrated that they are capable of dealing with the challenges presented in matches of immense importance though.