For 30 years, successive Liverpool managers have been searching for that ultimate footballing cliché: the last piece of the jigsaw. For a while at Anfield, it looked like Mohamed Salah might be it for Jurgen Klopp. Then Virgil van Dijk and Alisson came along and made the side more complete.
It turns out even these esteemed names, extraordinary as they are, must stand aside.
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The difference between the Liverpool team who could have won the title last season – and the European champions now in the healthiest position they could have imagined after 12 games to do it – is Fabinho.
In their world-class central midfielder, Liverpool have finally filled the gap vacated by Steven Gerrard.
With Fabinho, Liverpool possess a team with no weakness in any sector of the pitch.
With Fabinho, Liverpool possess a team who currently have no tactical flaw, able to dominate when opponents sit back, or gleefully set the traps and move from back to front to score in 22 seconds when, like City, visitors play with ambition. No wonder Pep Guardiola sounded like his brain was frazzled at full-time. Working out how to beat Klopp’s Liverpool at Anfield is now the biggest challenge in football.
Fabinho is a different profile of footballer to Gerrard, of course. Less box-to-box and more facilitator than finisher – although you might not assume that given the way he smashed Liverpool into the lead against Manchester City from outside the penalty area. That was not the work of an anchorman, suggesting if the moment came for him to patrol 20 yards up the pitch he would be just as imposing.
But since he marked his territory in that zone in front of the back four 11 months ago, no one has come close to manoeuvring the Brazilian off the ball. City certainly could not dominate him, their prolonged spells of pressure pleasing on the eye without sustained penetration.
No one has brought such calm to the Kop orchestra. This is no longer heavy metal football. It is a polyphony of which Fabinho is the conductor.
Of the many withering criticisms directed at Liverpool by City when they were engaged in last season’s photo finish, it was the suggestion that the frenzied environment in which the challengers operate could be a hindrance rather than help that stung most; as if the obsessive ache for this darn title would dismantle poise.
The howls of fear are occasionally still audible inside Anfield – you could sense it when Bernardo Silva reduced the deficit with 15 minutes remaining – but even if it is transmitted to the players, they seem unaffected.
The trio of Van Dijk, Alisson and, latterly, Fabinho did more to demonstrate that when Liverpool collected 97 points last May. They reasserted it as City continued to probe when three down in such a way to make Guardiola proclaim this still to be one of the proudest performances of his coaching career. Such words serve to elevate the quality of Liverpool’s victory.
Fabinho’s mastering of the art of receiving the right pass, moving it purposefully and being in position to repel any threat means even though City’s accuracy and elegance on the ball often gave the impression they were in some sort of command, it was a mirage. When he reviews the afternoon, Guardiola might eventually acknowledge that.
Instead, in his press conference Guardiola sounded like a manager who had run out of ideas about how to get a result at Anfield. The conundrum is obvious. He prepared in the knowledge that playing to his side’s strengths played into Liverpool’s – the swift counter-attacks punishing City’s ambition.
When Liverpool are given the kind of space offered here, withstanding the pace of interplay from the full-backs to forwards is like trying to contain wildfire.
Liverpool have done this to City before, but there is more security to it now. For all Liverpool’s attacking verve in those previous harrowing defeats for Guardiola, there was an Anfield concession of inferiority in midfield.
That is why the surveillance system of Fabinho is so transformative. That is why Klopp took the calculated risk against Aston Villa last weekend, leaving out the South American because had he been cautioned he would have served a one-game ban. There is greatness in City’s midfield. Liverpool now possess it, too.
There will be no premature title coronation at Anfield after this result and performance. Klopp will be riled by any suggestion that he, or the fans, will make any presumptions.
What is unavoidable for him is no Liverpool team has consistently demonstrated the authority needed to build such a lead, protect it, and potentially enhance it.
Whether Liverpool win the Premier League or not, by doing this to a side of City’s class they have reaffirmed what all pretenders to the throne must.
That they are at least ready to win it.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)
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