Why Klopp has to Start Fabinho at Centre Half Against Manchester United and Other Tactical Notes and Predictions

Qualifier: At the time of this writing (Tuesday), Ozan Kabak is not expected to play – if he does play expect a much different lineup but hopefully a similar result.

Centre Half Predictions:
Have you ever been watching a Liverpool FC game the last couple of years and noticed Joel Matip is in a really advanced opposition? The Reds did not just take a corner or have a free-kick, so why is Matip within a couple of yards of the other team’s box? Have you also ever wondered why Klopp doesn’t move Virgil Van Dijk over to right centre-half to help cover for Trent Alexander-Arnold going forward? Were you like me and spend the whole winter wondering why Klopp kept sticking Fabinho in the back four even though it was clear we needed his strength, ball-winning capabilities, protection, and grit in the midfield?

I think Nat Phillips’ play the last few weeks is the key to answer all three of those questions. Anyone who watches LFC even a little can notice that Trent pushes on all of the time to support the forwards out on the right-wing, sometimes as the furthest player forward. But, in the last few weeks, if you paid attention, you also saw Nat Phillips closer to the opposition box than you would ever expect for a big man like himself. It appears this is clearly part of Klopp’s game plan. He has Trent push up incredibly high, and if the other team wins the ball back, the right sided central defender seems to be tasked with coming up very quickly to pressure the ball to stymie a quick outlet pass or an upfield ball over the top.

Nat Phillips seems to have settled into this role, and despite not being overly pacey, he has found himself pushing higher and higher up the pitch in the last few weeks to cover for when Liverpool lose the ball and Trent is committed forward. Over the past few seasons, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez have both done this with regularity. However, if the other team does bypass that rushing right-sided centre-half, the left-sided centre-half is put in a very vulnerable position. How many times have LFC fans seen Virgil retreating with two or sometimes even three attackers coming at him?

This part (having the right centre-half rush forward to stop attacks before they start) of Liverpool’s strategy of a high line and having the fullbacks push forward worked well for the last few years because LFC had the best centre-half in the world waiting at the back with the best goalie in the world behind him. Virgil isn’t just big and strong, he is also considered one of the fastest players on the team. He was almost always successful in single-handedly shutting down breakaway situations. When he was knocked out for the season, Klopp faced a difficult decision – should he switch Gomez or Matip to that difficult left side position as the last line of defense? But then, Gomez went down, and Klopp had an even tougher choice – bring in a youngster to partner Matip and move Joel to the left or go with one of the squad’s best 1V1 defenders and tactically aware players (Fabinho) at left centre-half. He chose Fabinho, but then Matip went down too, so Fabinho found himself partnered with Jordan Henderson or Nat Phillips.

After Hendo went down LFC desperately needed more graft in the midfield. Klopp just couldn’t trust that extremely important left-sided centre-half position to Nat Phillips or a 19-year-old Rhys Williams. So even though it weakened the midfield significantly, he kept Fabinho in the back four and swapped out midfielders like Curtis Jones, Xherdan Shaqiri and Naby Keita. Fabinho was stuck back there until Ozan Kabak earned Klopp’s trust to handle it, and then he was partnered with Phillips freeing up Fabinho to move back higher up the pitch.

Against Southampton, Kabak was injured and Rhys Williams got his chance to start. Rather than swap multiple players and positions, Klopp kept Phillips on the right where he has comfortable and playing well and put Williams on the left. On a few different occasions, Phillips got pushed forward and caught out and Southampton was able to maneuver quickly around him. This left Williams isolated, and he was beaten on more than one occasion. Throughout the match, Williams looked flat-footed, slow, and a bit surprised as runners went by or behind him – obviously not a great thing to happen when you’re the last line of defense.

Southampton’s inability to score came down to their own profligacy, some LFC luck, and a great game by Alisson. However, a healthy Danny Ings probably puts in at least one for Southampton. Ings’ injury probably played heavily into why Klopp gave Williams the start. However, with Marcus Rashford and Edison Cavani set to play on Thursday and Bruno Fernandes providing the cutting through balls, Klopp is going to have to go back to his much more experienced and wiser head. Fabinho has to move back to the left-sided centre-half and partner with Phillips on the right – as much as I hate to lose Fab’s presence in the midfield.

Fullback Predictions:
This one is easy. Robbo on the left and Trent on the right. Expect them to be a bit more cautious against United, but it is clear that Trent is expected and instructed to push up, so I am sure he will spend a lot of time in an advanced position.

Midfield Predictions:
Fabinho moving back will weaken the midfield, but it will allow for the return of James Milner to slot in with Thiago and Gini Wijnaldum. Milner, despite his advanced age, still seems to be the liveliest and most capable of the midfielders at making runs forward to either draw the defense apart or sneak in behind them. His inclusion should give the Reds a bit more offensive thrust from midfield and I would not be surprised if he plays his part in a goal. I expect Milner to start on the right (even though he and Robertson have such great interplay) to help cover for Trent, with Gini at the base and Thiago on the left. However, expect a lot of shuffling of positions as is typical for a Klopp midfield – especially when Milner is making runs.

Forward Predictions:
With Rhys Williams on the bench and Fabinho back at centre-half, the Reds will field an incredibly short trio across midfield and be quite short all over the pitch. This is not great as Manchester United is one of the taller teams in the Premier League (depending on the lineup, but based on Tuesday’s game United should field their typical lineup against the Reds). This means that Bobby Firmino will probably have to start to add a little bit of height and provide some help on defending set-pieces. I don’t think there is any doubt that Salah starts on the right, so the big question is who will start on the left-wing Jota or Mane. I would have given the nod to Jota a week ago, but after Sadio’s much more potent and aggressive display on the weekend, I think he gets the call. Diogo will be the first man off the bench, probably around the hour mark, and depending on how the game is going, he could come on for Milly to go 4-2-4 or replace one of the forwards.

My Lineup:
Alisson, Robertson, Fabinho, Phillips, Alexander-Arnold, Thiago, Wijnaldum, Milner, Mane, Firmino, Salah

My (overly detailed) Prediction:
Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United
Our Reds come out flying and take the lead on a Salah goal that is assisted by Mane on a cutback in the first half. Early in the second, United launches a counter when Nat Phillips is caught high up the pitch and Fabinho gets called for a penalty on a weak challenge on Rashford that Fernandes slots home (after a 4-minute VAR review). Liverpool FINALLY get a late winner when Klopp has thrown caution to the wind and brought on Jota for Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain for Gini. Bobby plays in Jota who squares it for Ox and he gets the winner after the 80th minute. LFC fans spend the last 10 minutes with their breath held as United throw everything forward but Alisson stands firm. Klopp hugs everyone, but gives his biggest to a spent Robbo and an ecstatic Ox!

A quick note on the centre-half situation: Think about how much impact the Kabak injury had on just this game – it basically helped determine that Firmino was needed to start for height/defense reasons. Now think about the difference it makes having Virgil at the back (tall, strong, dominant in the air and on set pieces, fast, incredible at 1v1 defending). His presence is what allows Trent to push up almost to the touch-line and then have Mo drop off inside and hang around the 18-yard line to find his shot. It allows so much more flexibility in all of the other positions. It allows midfielders to make gut-busting runs behind defenses because they don’t have to hold back to protect the back four. Thinking about all that, you realize just how much of an impact losing VVD has on the whole team and how its ramifications ring through every level of the pitch.
*Expect an article soon on Virgil Van Dijk and how he is the cornerstone the rest of the team is built on.