Fabinho: the rise and decline of Liverpool's quiet superstar

Fabinho was never supposed to be a superstar.

At first glance, the early career trajectory of Liverpool's "lighthouse" reads like that of your typical Brazilian wonderkid: Fluminense, Real Madrid, Monaco...

But the Wikipedia page doesn't tell the whole story.

Writing for The Players' Tribune in May this year, the Brazilian revealed that he never had "the belief that I would ever make it to the top top level."

He tells the story of how, when he was a teenager at Fluminense, doubting he would ever make it to the first team, he spoke to a club psychologist who told him there were two paths for professional footballers in Brazil. There were superstars, who would rise to the very top, and jobbing players who find work by going from club to club — at whatever level — to achieve financial security.

Asked which he thought he would be, the teenage Fabinho replied the latter.

"I chose the second option, and I meant it. That’s the reality for so many footballers — especially in Brazil. Football is a job. The dream isn’t the Champions League, it’s to make a living," he wrote.

Fabinho was never a wonderkid. Curiously, he never made a first-team appearance in his native Brazil. Yet his displays with the Brazil Under-20s caught the eye of the super-agent Jorge Mendes, which earned the then right-back a move to Rio Ave in Portugal before joining Real Madrid B — all in the space of a crazy month in the summer of 2012.

In the decade since, the unassuming Fabinho has changed position and become one of the very best defensive midfielders in the world, winning Ligue 1 with Monaco, as well as all the major trophies available with Liverpool.

It's a story few players could ever dream of and one far exceeding Fabinho's own early predictions for his career.

The Lighthouse

© Proshots - Fabinho

His £43.7m arrival in 2018 gave Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool something they hadn't had before. Along with the signing of countryman Alisson the same summer, it was like fusing the Reds' spine with Adamantium.

It's not hyperbole to say the signing of Fabinho was a key moment in Liverpool's evolution from exciting also-rans to bonafide winners.

Immediately popular with fans and teammates alike, he became Liverpool's "Lighthouse", earning the moniker from Pep Lijnders.

Liverpool's assistant manager said of Fabinho in 2019: "Inside the ‘organised chaos’ that we want, that we like, he is like a lighthouse. He controls it and, for me, you can still have the style of the gaffer and how we want to identify ourselves.”

Klopp latter dubbed his number 3 "Dyson" for his clean up capabilities.

At his best for Liverpool, Fabinho has been a player of great positional intelligence, a master of closing spaces and killing danger in its infancy. Particularly between the years 2019 and 2022, it was not hard to argue that he was the best 'number 6' in world football.

In 2022, he was voted 14th in the Ballon d'Or rankings and was named in the Champions League Team of the Season.

Still, Fabinho remained humble. In the same The Players' Tribune essay, he describes "watching the fans" in wonder — rather than the actual game going on — during his first experience of Anfield, as a sub on the opening day of the 2018/19 season.

There is a quiet, down-to-earth quality to the Brazilian. Panenka penalty against Chelsea aside, he is not flashy. Like a lighthouse, when he shines it is in service of others.

The drop-off

Fabinho was far from the only Liverpool player to experience a dip in form in 2022/23, but he was just so visible in the Reds' problems. The man pulling the strings under the hood of the midfield had become exposed in a soft centre.

After coming so close to a quadruple in 2022, Liverpool's mentality monsters looked spent. By the autumn of the new campaign, the adrenaline had worn off and frailties were laid bare in an exhausted team.

At 29, Fabinho suddenly looked sluggish and incapable of the demands of Klopp's heavy metal football.

Winter defeats at Brighton, Wolves and Bournemouth — three low points in Liverpool's season — were particularly harrowing experiences for the once calm and collected midfield anchor.

Stats like his duels won and interceptions dropped to all-time lows across his five seasons in England.

There are mitigating factors.

The lack of a coherent team press for much of the season, a result of myriad factors, left the Brazilian doubly exposed.

On top of that, Fabinho has never really had much of a rest. Liverpool don't have much specialist depth in the defensive midfield position and, over the last two seasons in particular, he has been run pretty relentlessly.

While other players saw at least some rotation, Fabinho completed the most minutes he's ever played in a season for Liverpool (2,677 — and close to 5,000 across the last two campaigns combined).

Only Mohamed Salah, Alisson and Trent Alexander-Arnold featured in more Premier League games than Fabinho's 36, despite his struggles with form.

In addition to the heavy workload, he became a father for the first time mid-season, an intense and life-altering experience for anyone and, if not an excuse for his dip in form, a reminder that footballers are human beings too.

Despite everything, Fabinho's availability remained impressive — a not insignificant quality considering the injury problems in the Liverpool midfield.

He also bounced back impressively in spring, thriving in a box midfield alongside Alexander-Arnold as the Reds won seven of their last nine league games to qualify for the Europa League.

An inconspicuous end

 

Whether the first part of the 2022/23 season was a true sign of terminal decline as Fabinho approaches the milestone of his 30th birthday, or just an exhaustion-induced blip is a question that may never be answered.

With Liverpool's much-discussed midfield rebuild quickly transforming into a full overhaul amid Saudi interest in both Fabinho and Henderson, it appears the Brazilian may already have played his last game for the Reds.

Romeo Lavia has been named as Liverpool's number one defensive midfield target. Surely, in an ideal world, Klopp would've kept Fabinho on until 2024 to help ease the burden on the 19-year-old Belgian, who is full of promise but has played just a single season of senior football. However, with a figure of £40m being touted for Fabinho's transfer from Al-Ittihad, Liverpool will almost certainly never get a better chance to cash in.

Force him to stay now and, next summer, there could be no offers for a midfielder who is past his best and still under contract until 2026.

Seeing the likes of Gini Wijnaldum, Divock Origi, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Roberto Firmino all depart on frees in recent seasons has surely been a cause for some internal concern over squad planning at Liverpool.

The latest reports say Fabinho has not travelled to Germany with the rest of the first-team squad for their pre-season training camp, suggesting a move is now imminent.

Like with Henderson, it will be a shame if Fabinho does leave after an underwhelming campaign, without the chance for a proper goodbye like the one Firmino enjoyed. He's certainly earned it.

But sometimes a rebuild requires a lack of sentimentality.

Maybe an inconspicuous end is just the way it has to be for the Reds' quiet superstar.

Whatever happens, he's achieved far more than his teenage self ever imagined he would.

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