Another weekend in 2023, another disappointing result for Liverpool. The Reds’ defence of the FA Cup was ended by Brighton courtesy of a clever stoppage-time Kaoru Mitoma goal. And Jurgen Klopp, whose second-half substitutions coincided with a significant decline in performance, has a growing problem with two players after the loss on the south coast.
In the 59th minute, James Milner, Darwin Nunez and Jordan Henderson replaced the trio of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Harvey Elliott and Naby Keita. The introductions had the opposite effect that Klopp intended, with Liverpool losing intensity and control and looking far more open and vulnerable. The legs of Elliott and Keita were sorely missed.
The worst individual cameo, though, undoubtedly came from Fabinho who replaced Stefan Bajcetic with six minutes of normal time to play. The Brazilian was booked for studding the Achilles of Evan Ferguson just two minutes later and should have been sent off.
The Brighton striker was forced off the pitch as a result with Fabinho incredibly fortunate only to get a yellow even after VAR reviewed the incident. How notably Liverpool’s overall midfield performance level dropped off with seasoned veterans Henderson and Fabinho on the pitch must serve as an alarm bell for Klopp.
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Instead of putting out fires, the experienced duo are starting them. Captain Henderson no longer provides the energy he used to and is frequently careless in possession, while Fabinho appears late to absolutely everything, as evidenced by his tackle on Ferguson. The Brazilian is nowhere near the same No 6 he was at his peak under Klopp.
Such is their dire form that teenager Bajcetic, Thiago Alcantara and Keita – out of contract in the summer – are all preferred over them. Thiago is being asked to operate as a box-to-box midfielder instead of a deeper-lying tempo-setter, meaning Liverpool are not getting the best out of the Spaniard. But even more worryingly, Henderson and Fabinho aren’t even proving useful as substitutes either at the moment.
Liverpool are in need of a midfield overhaul this summer but Henderson and Fabinho, under contract until 2025 and 2026 respectively, are most likely going nowhere. Yet the steep nature of their drop-offs indicates that these are not just short-term slumps, and that little will change in coming campaigns.
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Klopp said of Fabinho in November: “In a long career, players have ‘dips’ in performance, that’s completely normal. Usually you sort that by not playing that often, but because of our situation, Fab had to play through everything. You get through it, and at one point you are back to yourself, that’s how it is.” His failure to improve since suggests otherwise.
In fact, his poor form has been a problem for almost 12 months and there has been no sign yet that Fabinho will rediscover his old levels. That Liverpool wanted Aurelien Tchouameni last summer may be a hint that the Merseyside club knew he needed extra support following several exhausting seasons as the team’s sole midfield anchor.
Liverpool’s first trip to Brighton this year – a 3-0 league loss – had proven that Fabinho and Henderson aren’t up to it – at least this season – as starters against younger fresher teams. Their second trip makes it questionable if they can even be assets from the bench for the rest of the campaign. More cameos like this and their long-term futures will quickly be at risk, regardless of their contributions before now.
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