Football Features

Liverpool 2-0 RB Leipzig: How Fabinho’s defensive dominance unlocked Thiago’s swagger

By Chris Smith

Published: 6:27, 1 January 2021 | Updated: 12:27, 26 March 2021

Liverpool booked their place in the Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday with a 2-0 second-leg win over RB Leipzig, sealing a 4-0 aggregate victory.

Despite the Bundesliga side needing two goals to draw level, it was Liverpool who largely dominated the game, slicing Leipzig open with some crisp passing and quick breaks, and testing Hungarian goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi with a number of efforts.

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As has often been the case over the past couple of years, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane stole the headlines, scoring two fine second-half goals to put the tie to bed. However, Jurgen Klopp will arguably be even more pleased with the performances of Thiago and Fabinho further back.

Such has been Liverpool’s horrendous injury crisis this season, Fabinho lined up in midfield for the first time since October, with the Brazilian either filling in at centre-back or finding himself sidelined. But his presence at the base of midfield, where he could offer extra protection to the Reds’ young centre-back duo, Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips, effectively set Thiago free, allowing the Spaniard to roam forward and probe for gaps in the Leipzig defence, combine with his forwards and use his incredible engine to press high up the pitch.

By the time he was withdrawn in the 72nd minute, moments after Salah had given Liverpool the lead on the night, Thiago had made more tackles (6) and contested more duels than any other player on the pitch, winning 46.7% of the latter. The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich man tore around the Budapest pitch with astounding energy to deny Leipzig rhythm in possession and when he won the ball back, Thiago quickly set about orchestrating attacks. There was no finer example of his play-making abilities than the karate-kick pass to send the ball over the Leipzig defence in the first half, setting Salah free, though he would ultimate be denied by the excellent Gulacsi.

Is this the real Thiago? Is this what we can come to expect from a player who has taken a huge amount of criticism since arriving on Merseyside last summer? Thiago’s performance on Wednesday was a timely reminder of the quality and sheer pedigree which he can offer to this Liverpool side. As is the fact that this is his 12th consecutive Champions League win — a record for a Spanish player.

Perhaps having Fabinho behind him in midfield was the key all along.

“I told him on the way downstairs, ‘you like the No.6 more, yes?’,” Klopp said of Fabinho after the match.” We all want Fabinho in the No.6. Tonight, he played there and the two centre-backs had a really good game.”

Speaking in the BT Sport studio, former Liverpool forward Michael Owen added: “When he’s in the middle, you feel safe. It was just so comforting having him back in his right position. He covers the back two, which is a weak part of the team.”

The Brazilian gained possession for his team on more occasions (12) than any other Liverpool player on the night, made a match-high four interceptions and made three tackles of his own. Indeed, his ball-winning capabilities were just as impressive as Thiago’s, he was just doing it further back.

On the night, Kabak and Phillips were superb, gobbling up almost every cross or aerial duel that came their way. But given Liverpool’s wretched luck at centre-back this season, it’s understandable that Klopp would want an experienced babysitter looking after them.

Fabinho played that role to perfection, mopping up in the defensive third, plugging gaps and, when the ball was won, playing it off with unerring calm and authority.

Looking ahead, Liverpool have tricky ties against Wolves, Arsenal, Aston Villa and Leeds United to come as they seek to put a stop to their divebomb down the Premier League table.

To stop the rot, Klopp must take what he has learned from the Champions League into domestic competition. He must combine Fabinho, the defensive domineer, with Thiago, the sultan of swagger. It’s quite clearly a winning combination.


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