Rewind 12 months to the beginning of the 2018-19 Premier League campaign and there was one man noticeable by his absence during the early months of the campaign at Anfield.
Liverpool had splashed £44million on Fabinho to take the Brazilian from Monaco during the summer as Jurgen Klopp sought to evolve his Reds midfield.
In France, Fabinho had increasingly thrived after switching from full-back into a holding midfield role under Leonardo Jardim.
During the side’s Ligue 1 success and run to the Champions League semi-final in 2016-17 he made more starts than anyone – bar goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and defender Emerson – often starting ahead of Joao Moutinho in the side’s biggest encounters.
He would remain at the Stade Louis II one more season, before heading to Merseyside, earmarked as an upgrade on Emre Can, who had left for Juventus .
His first pre-season had told Jurgen Klopp that he would need time to settle in, to become fully attuned to his methods and the way in which he would fit into the structure of his side.
It wasn’t an issue for the German, Andy Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain having both undergone a similar process the previous year, having, unlike Fabinho, arrived from within the Premier League.
However, in these times of social media and now, now, now culture, where patience is often in short supply, the decision was questioned elsewhere, answers demanded in some quarters.
The player didn’t necessarily agree with his manager’s decision but respected it.
“I think if it was up to me, I would have been playing from the beginning,” Fabinho stated earlier this year.
“Maybe Jurgen could see something I couldn’t see. So [I had] not just conversations with him but all the staff helped me. I had patience to wait for my opportunities.”
Jordan Henderson continued in the role from which he had captained the side to the previous year’s Champions League final in Kiev, before Fabinho was handed his first start in the Carabao Cup loss to Chelsea ; he didn’t do badly, indeed he progressed the ball remarkably well from the middle of the field into the final third (10/10 finding their target outside the penalty area), but he also lost possession three times in his own half and, understandably, looked somewhat sluggish.
That was on September 26. He had to wait until the end of October for his first Premier League appearances, against Huddersfield (as a sub) and Cardiff .
In the latter, a 4-1 home win at Anfield, he looked right at home, recovering possession 10 times, and completing 94 per cent of his 87 passes – 25 of those went forwards (23 successful – 13 into the final third.)
Then came a difficult afternoon at Arsenal , where he failed to lay down any kind of real marker. He was here, there, and everywhere, without actually being anywhere at all.
At the Emirates that afternoon, he was far less involved than in any other Premier League fixture where he has played the full 90 minutes since; for every successful involvement – whether passing, pressing, winning the ball aerially – there was almost a matching unsuccessful action (32-27, a total of 59).
Liverpool’s coaching staff never had any question marks over his ability to defend against what was directly in front of him, but over whether he could avoid leaving the No.6 position unattended when operating as a single pivot. At Arsenal, he was far too isolated.
“For Fabinho, to play in a midfield three as we did at the start of the season, we knew it would take time,” assistant boss Pep Lijnders declared in February. “The question as a No.6, though, is that you are moving more side-to-side than forwards.”
To help the situation, and allied to a desire to further Mohamed Salah’s goal threat, they adapted to a 4-2-3-1 formation for much of the period from November to the end of January last season; Fabinho would often play as a double pivot with a partner – often Gini Wijnaldum.
As the Premier League title race became more and more fierce however, with Sadio Mane on fire and a desire to get Roberto Firmino back playing as a false nine, the Reds reverted back to 4-3-3, with Salah again playing from out to in; at that point, Fabinho took over as the undoubted lynchpin at the heart of Klopp’s midfield; Jordan Henderson was freed up to play slightly further forward, and Fabinho made the No.6 role his own.
He led with intelligence and drive, not only winning and retaining but also the ability to force the issue from deep, whether with his ability to press and win back possession or to work the ball into the much-vaunted front trio.
He has become increasingly influential and shone as the Reds ran to 97 points – the third best total in English top-flight history, but one short of Manchester City’s record breakers – and won the Champions League.
“Inside the ‘organised chaos’ that we want, that we like, his is like a lighthouse,” says Lijnders. “He controls it. There’s a saying in Portuguese, ‘ A bola sempre sai rodada ’. It means ‘The ball always goes out round’ and with a player like Fabinho in the middle, you can see that.
“His timing, his vision, his calmness. It gives another dimension to our midfield play.”
As Klopp has further developed the playing style, with Liverpool increasingly becoming a side that no longer blows you away in short 15 minute bursts, but rather seek to relentlessly dominate for 90 minutes, Fabinho’s importance has grown further.
And after Liverpool continued their perfect start to the 2019-20 season with a 3-0 win at Burnley , further plaudits have come his way. Reds legend Jamie Carragher has been effusive in his praise: “I actually think he’s the best in the Premier League now in that position.”
Perhaps a better sign of Fabinho’s growth came not at Turf Moor however, but rather in the 3-1 Anfield win over Arsenal the previous week.
Unai Emery switched to a diamond midfield looking to swamp the central area directly in front of the Reds No.3, retaining a numerical advantage and simultaneously protecting their own defence. Instead, all the Gunners managed to do was feed another monstrous display.
Of 89 total actions, 71 were successful – an 80 per cent ratio, above his Premier League average of 75.8 per cent; 11 of his 14 ball recoveries took place in the opposing half, while 13 of 14 passes into the final third found a teammate.
Now he has full grasped the movement necessary from his No.6 position; his actions were nowhere near as spread out as 10 months ago, the majority taking place in the middle third of the pitch; as Fabinho offered far greater stability defensively but also backed up the high press, with Arsenal attempting to play out from the back.
So far this season, he’s averaging 4.3 tackles and 4.7 interceptions per 90 minutes also.
“I’ve always liked to play in this position,” Fabinho said this week, speaking to Liverpool’s official website. “You get to participate a lot in the game and have an important role in the creation of play.
“On the defensive side of things, you have to be very alert to help the team.
“I try to remain calm with the ball at my feet, though not letting the calmness become slowness. I try to control the game.
“The style of our team is intensity – we try and apply maximum speed and pressure, that’s what we work towards.”
Right now, it’s full steam ahead as Liverpool push to end a 30-year wait for the English championship. When they return from the international break, Fabinho will once more seek to organise the chaos, and keep Klopp’s men in control.