An untimely series of injuries to defenders has left Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp short-handed at the back as he tries to keep the Premier League leaders on track for a first title in 29 years at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold joined a growing injury list with a knee problem picked up in the warm-up ahead of last weekend’s 1-0 win at Brighton that could keep the English international out for up to a month.
Centre-backs Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip are still working their way back to fitness, while the decision to let Nathaniel Clyne leave on loan to Bournemouth earlier this month has been questioned.
However, Klopp has been able to rely on the versatility of summer signing Fabinho to cover both at the heart of defence alongside the commanding Virgil van Dijk, and at right-back.
The 25-year-old, signed for nearly 40 million (USD 51 million) from Monaco, took his time to adapt to English football, something Klopp predicted would happen as far back as July when Fabinho made his pre-season debut against non-league Chester.
But recent weeks have shown that Klopp’s vision for Fabinho to serve as a vital and versatile cog in his championship-challenging squad have come to fruition.
“Fabinho is a brilliant player. To have a good footballer in that position when you have the ball is great,” said Klopp.
“He has a defensive brain and can play in a lot of positions.” Fabinho had played at right-back, where he has recently started for Brazil, and as a defensive midfielder for the Ligue 1 side, where he caught Klopp’s eye.
Yet the German also saw his potential as providing cover in the centre-half positions, an observation that became particularly important at Brighton.
Alongside the immaculate Van Dijk, Fabinho turned in a mature display as Liverpool kept a 13th clean sheet in 22 Premier League games to maintain an important four-point cushion over their closest rivals Manchester City.
“Some weeks ago, I knew this could be an option because we had some players out injured and we only had two centre-backs available,” Fabinho told the Liverpool website.
“When Dejan got injured, I knew it would be logical that I’d play in that position.
“I had some training sessions playing in that position, which helped me adapt better and pick up certain aspects, like positioning and movements you need to be natural at to play in this position.” Fabinho had to be patient to make an impact on the Premier League.
Not until late October at struggling Huddersfield did Klopp hand him his league debut off the bench and a first start followed a week later against Cardiff in his more natural midfield role.
But the Brazilian has since started a further eight league games and his adaptability and versatility suggests he will have a considerable role to play in Liverpool’s bid for honours both in the Premier League and Champions League with Van Dijk suspended for the first leg of their last-16 tie against Bayern Munich next month.