Fabinho, Thiago and the ultimate defensive gamble Jurgen Klopp now faces

It’s fair to say Jurgen Klopp has been a man with a million things on his mind this season.

The Liverpool manager has gone from such dizzying heights of last season to one of the strangest campaigns of his managerial career.

Setback after setback has hit the reigning champions and now what seemed impossible at the start of the season now looks like a very firm reality; Liverpool are poised to miss out on the top four and Champions League qualification.

Klopp’s confidence-bereft squad are all out of position and seemingly all out of luck. Six consecutive home defeats for the first time in Liverpool’s entire history is the darkest of black marks against the club’s name, and something nobody could have foreseen back in summer.

Wallowing in the mire simply isn’t an option for Klopp and his men right now however, there still remains a season to be salvaged.

Dark clouds have gathered over Liverpool but Jurgen Klopp still has a season to salvage

Despite an overflowing treatment room Liverpool still have the quality to make a good fist of what remains of the season, yet it may well require the cautious and calculated Klopp to make a sizable gamble.

As the German reintroduced Brazilian anchor Fabinho into his midfield as Liverpool chased their most recent defeat to Fulham, fans were offered a glimpse of what could be possible going forward. 

Likewise, the knock-on effects could be significant. Sportsmail took a closer look… 

Restoring balance

There is a reason Liverpool ended their 30-year wait for the title in such blistering fashion last season.

The Reds didn’t simply edge over the line with a campaign’s worth of impressive performances, they obliterated the entire division and looked well on course to last out the entire season unbeaten.

Liverpool were so good because Klopp found the perfect recipe. He knew exactly what he wanted his team to do, and for the first time in his Merseyside tenure he had every individual piece he needed.

Full-frontal aggression defined Liverpool, from their breathless final third pressing to a relentless exchange of passing from the back line.

An injury-ravaged campaign has seen Liverpool playing new faces and many out of position

An injury-ravaged campaign has seen Liverpool playing new faces and many out of position

Everything clicked. The defence became impenetrable and an extension of the midfield, allowing Liverpool to play a terrifyingly high line to lure in opponents before slotting in their razor sharp trio of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane in behind.

Injuries have put paid to all of this. The harmonious balance that is the Liverpool way under Klopp has been thrown completely out of kilter.

Humiliating defeats to the likes of Burnley, Brighton and Southampton, along with seemingly needless draws to both Newcastle and West Brom all showed perfect examples of Liverpool attempting to play the way they know best… except with square pegs in round holes.

Week by week we see glimmers of the old Liverpool, before the team appears to be troubleshooting a technical glitch which it cannot remedy. Midfielders are slotting into defence and covering personnel are having to drastically alter their own games as a result.

It’s causing friction, and should come as no surprise that the like of Salah, Mane and Firmino have had their form and confidence drained as a result.

Last Sunday at Anfield Klopp sensed a breaking point, with Liverpool then standing on the cusp of defeat to relegation candidates Fulham. He summoned returning star Fabinho from the bench and deployed his trusted commander in midfield for the first time in several months.

Fabinho's rare return to midfield against Fulham showed Liverpool what they've been missing

Fabinho’s rare return to midfield against Fulham showed Liverpool what they’ve been missing

It was a nothing-to-lose scenario, with Liverpool heading for another humbling defeat. Fabinho’s presence instantly added steel to the midfield, while players around him were able to both take and vacate pockets of space as a result.

Likewise, the centre back pairing of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams – still very much wet behind the ears – took confidence from the presence of the Brazilian in front of them, and held firm with composure. 

Ultimately it was not enough to turn the tie around, but was this a sign of things to come? 

The Thiago trap

Huge and totally warranted excitement came with the capture of Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich.

UEFA’s ‘Team of the Year’ midfielder arrived at Anfield and was intended to signal the next dimension for Liverpool. The tool for them to use in order to become better than better.

It has become a nice sniping point for rival supporters to highlight how little Thiago has impacted Klopp’s side, who have gone from famed ‘mentality monsters’ to a variant of ‘mentality midgets.’

Club icon Dietmar Hamann went a step further and summised that Thiago has in fact made Liverpool worse and thrown off the side’s whole dynamic.

Thiago arrived at Liverpool with a very specific role in mind, but it hasn't worked out so far

Thiago arrived at Liverpool with a very specific role in mind, but it hasn’t worked out so far

To cut through the hysteria however and instead consult the figures, this simply isn’t the case.

A lot is expected of Thiago because of his standing in world football. The former Barcelona man is universally accepted to be one of the finest midfielders on the planet, and was the driving force behind Bayern’s Champions League win last season.

At Liverpool, however, Thiago is still very much weighing in with his fair share of positive contributions. The main and most crucial difference, though, is that he is having to operate from an entirely different role. 

Said role is almost certainly not what he was brought to Liverpool to do, yet with all hands to the pump as a makeshift team battles to stop the rot, Klopp has called upon the versatile star to use his wide-ranging skill set for the greater good. 

Thiago was intended to come into the free-scoring, all-dominating Liverpool team that was seen last season and perform his duties in his customary No.6 position, rotating with Fabinho and allowing himself pockets of freedom to pull the strings from deep and put on a show.

Now, however, the Spaniard finds himself on the right side of a rather rigid midfield three, which by the match becomes more fearful of losing the ball and squandering yet more points.

The differences in Thiago's output between last season and now, provided by Sofascore

The differences in Thiago’s output between last season and now, provided by Sofascore

Stats show that Thiago is dribbling much less than he did last season with Bayern, while entering more duels for Liverpool. This in part can be attributed to the increased physicality of the Premier League, but the rough and tumble of Liverpool’s season means Thiago has had to become more of a battler than an artist.

Thiago finished last season with an accurate passes per game percentage of 90.6. This season with Liverpool the same figure stands at 89.4. It’s a promising total, indicating that despite his reverting of position and the fact he missed the entire festive period through injury, Thiago is still sequencing passes through the Liverpool team with an elite level of output.

His total of accurate long-balls per game has fallen slightly, from 77.5% to 74.5%, while attempted dribbles are down from 85.1% to 79.4%.

What can be deduced from this, therefore? Thiago is not actually that far behind the Bayern stats he served up last season, which helped the Bavarian side become Europe’s best.

This suggests a risk must be taken. The Thiago trap needs to be unpicked and all evidence points to Fabinho being the man to facilitate this.

Despite his struggles statistics show Thiago isn't far off the figures he produced last season

Despite his struggles statistics show Thiago isn’t far off the figures he produced last season

The positional awareness and the defensive acumen of the former Monaco star make him a dream to play along in midfield for a player like Thiago, where last season he had Leon Goretzka to provide a similar kind of foil.

What’s more, Fabinho’s passing range and control with the ball make him so much more than simply an enforcer. He was a huge part in the Reds reclaiming both European and domestic glory, and now he could be Thiago’s ticket to undisputed success on Merseyside.

It will, however, take a period of transition. And the rewards may well be outweighed by the risk.

Striker salvage

One huge potential upturn of getting Fabinho back in midfield alongside Thiago would be the prospect of this breathing new life into the faltering front line.

Salah, Firmino and Mane have come under heavy criticism in recent weeks, though flashes of old can still be found. Link-up for Salah’s goal against Leicester City exhibited everything that is both devastating and admirable about Liverpool’s forward line.

Unfortunately such instances have been few and far between. Something has been missing, and an added component is needed to provide that spark.

The deadly front line have suffered this season from the knock-on effects of squad change

The deadly front line have suffered this season from the knock-on effects of squad change

Though Thiago was not renowned for his assist tally in German football (he provided two last season for Bayern), it has been frequently noted that his work in the build-up to a goal almost always led to the chance creation.

The ‘assist before the assist’ became Thiago’s thing, and this is something Klopp’s team crave right now.

Now finding himself battling for possession and helping Liverpool firefight their way back into matches, Thiago isn’t able to conjure in the same way as he did 12 months ago.

It’s important to note that teams are now sitting in deeper against Klopp’s side, realising that Liverpool are very much on the back foot this season and have become very susceptible to the counter attack. 

Thiago, like many of his team-mates, has been reduced to frustrating crosses as a result.

Liverpool have needed the likes of Sadio Mane to provide an outlet but the struggles continue

Liverpool have needed the likes of Sadio Mane to provide an outlet but the struggles continue

Yet the introduction of Fabinho against Fulham suggested this could well change. As the Brazilian entered the fray the tempo immediately picked up. Fabinho showed the art of winning possession, much more effectively than his team-mates, and quicker.

This will lessen the workload placed on Thiago, allowing him instead to then receive the ball from Fabinho and quickly eye up threaded passes into the feet of Firmino or the advancing Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Defensive gamble

It would be foolish to postulate such changes to Klopp’s team without highlighting how much of a risk it entails.

The Anfield boss is widely considered to be one of, if not the, best manager on the planet. It certainly has not been lost on Klopp how vital it is to get a fully functioning midfield on song.

The reason Klopp has, rightly, stuck with the use of Fabinho and/or captain Jordan Henderson in his defence boils down to the mitigation of risk.

To leave the defence to fend for itself would mean putting trust in Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies

To leave the defence to fend for itself would mean putting trust in Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies

Liverpool’s style of play is such that a defensive meltdown can entirely unhinge a game for them. It happens very infrequently, but when it does the outcome can be catastrophic.

Minds only need to be cast back to last season’s bizarre implosion at Vicarage Road, when an undefeated and seemingly unstoppable Liverpool lost 3-0 to a Watford team who later got relegated.

Just this season, with a full-strength back line (bar the absence of goalkeeper Alisson), Liverpool left the football world rocked when they collapsed at Aston Villa and somehow managed to lose 7-2. 

These things can happen. Klopp has been acutely aware that if such results can be recorded with the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez at centre back, then anything is possible when fielding a string of untried youngsters.

For this part Fabinho and Henderson have performed admirably, and ensured the Reds took crucial victories against the likes of Tottenham and West Ham.

Ultimately, however, it has not been enough. For all their gap-plugging efforts Liverpool still find themselves seven points adrift of the top four.

Klopp has avoided risk so far, but against Fulham both Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams featured

Klopp has avoided risk so far, but against Fulham both Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams featured

While gambles are never the most attractive of propositions, Liverpool are rapidly running out of time.

Wednesday night’s make-or-break clash with RB Leipzig would be a particularly brave starting point to trial such a shift in thinking, but the European stage has provided an comforting outlet for Klopp’s men so far this season.

Leaving the defence to fend for itself would mean the likes of Phillips and Williams enjoying much more game time than they could have possibly imaged, while putting full trust in both Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies to grasp their chances in a red shirt. 

For a man who has always been methodical, careful and calculated, it’s time for Klopp to engineer a game of risk. Liverpool’s season now hinges upon it.