The Reds are currently been tormented by a problem that bedeviled Manchester United for years, and solving it could be crucial to the side’s success in the upcoming season.
In the managerial days of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Liverpool’s arch-rival Manchester United never truly broke through the elite ceiling despite continuously spending big money on players.
While Manchester United finished above the injury-ravaged Reds in 2020/21, it never seemed to be genuinely on the level of a full-strength Liverpool.
A key part of the reason for this was the team’s sustained weakness in defensive midfield. Between the 2019/20 and 2021/22 seasons, Manchester United’s most used defensive shield consisted of Fred and Scott McTominay, two players who have their strengths but saw their limitations exposed at the top level.
Neither are ultimately good enough to be first-XI players for a team with the Red Devils’ aspirations, and yet that’s exactly the status they held for a number of years.
But last year, after years of fans calling for the problem to be decisively addressed in the transfer market, Manchester United recruited one of the world’s premier sixes in Casemiro, who wanted a new challenge after winning the Champions League five times with Real Madrid.
The Brazilian set them back an initial $77m (£60m/€70m), with a further $13m (£10m/€12m) potentially to follow through add-ons, but he repaid them by playing an instrumental role in the side’s transformation. Casemiro was one of the driving forces behind United’s return to Europe’s premier club competition and also produced a player of the match performance as Erik ten Hag ended a six-year trophy drought by beating Newcastle in the Carabao Cup final in February.
For years, Liverpool saw first-hand the importance of an elite defensive midfielder first-hand as Fabinho attained the status of a top-three player in his position.
Last season, it became a problem for Jürgen Klopp’s side as the exhausted Brazilian struggled, and now it’s turned into an area of desperate need. Klopp is heading into Sunday’s Premier League opener against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge without a specialist number six after Fabinho was allowed to make a $52m (£40m/€46m) to Saudi Pro League side Al-Ittihad.
The club has been unable to find a replacement in the transfer market thus far, and the likely result is that one of Alexis Mac Allister and Curtis Jones, both of whom are number eights, will have to offer a makeshift solution against Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
Thiago and Stefan Bajčetić will provide options when they eventually return from injury, but the former isn’t an out-and-out defensive midfielder and the latter is only 18.
Every component of a team is important, of course, but number six is arguably the most vital of all. Ten Hag called Casemiro ‘the cement between the stones’ after he arrived (via Sky Sports), underlining that players like this are fundamental to an elite team’s structure.
To focus on Liverpool specifically, Klopp has already explained in his tribute to the departed Fabinho that his deepest-lying midfielder forms a critical foundation for the rest of the team.
“Fab was for so long the insurance we had more or less in midfield,” he told Liverpool’s official website. “He always gave us the freedom to play all the fancy stuff. He was involved in that from time to time as well but loved to be the hoover for the team, loved to do all the dirty work for the team.
“Together with the center-halves, when both full-backs were flying right and left, all the strikers, all the midfielders somewhere and then just Fab and the two center-halves when it looked, ‘Oh OK, if we lose the ball, there are still a few players at least who can sort that.’ And he was massive.”
Liverpool’s primary target to succeed Fabinho is Southampton’s Roméo Lavia, but it has already seen three bids rejected (via Sky Sports). The Saints want $64m (£50m/€58m) for the teenager, which would represent a massive investment, but the Reds would expect him to unlock Klopp’s new system when he hits his stride.
Until Lavia, or indeed an alternative, is officially signed, Liverpool will share the same weakness as those aforementioned Solskjær sides. And even then, it may take a long time before the new face can hit the heights of their predecessor.