Liverpool must replace midfield ‘ghost’ over Szoboszlai, Barella signings, no matter what Rafa says…

Will Ford
Rafael Benitez believes Fabinho needs good players around him to thrive again at Liverpool.
Rafael Benitez believes Fabinho needs good players around him to thrive again at Liverpool.

Liverpool have signed Alexis Mac Allister and want either Dominik Szoboszlai or Nicolo Barella but mustn’t ignore their midfield priority this summer, no matter the thoughts of their former manager.

Everyone is in agreement: Liverpool need a midfield rebuild. By the time Alexis Mac Allister joined from Brighton they had not signed a central midfielder for nearly three years, with Thiago Alcantara the last addition in the summer of 2020. It showed.

The unmatched energy required in a Jurgen Klopp midfield meant that the Liverpool generals, who played major roles in their battles with Manchester City in the Premier League and their success in the Champions League over the past few seasons, looked spent. But although we’re in agreement that Liverpool need at least two, maybe three, midfield additions, we would question their order of priority.

No-one looked more f***ed than Fabinho; replacing the Brazilian should have taken precedence this summer, no matter what Rafael Benitez thinks.

On the back of a string of games in which the midfielder had made mistakes last season, Benitez laid the blame for Fabinho’s poor displays on his teammates.

“In Fabinho’s case, the solutions are having players around him in the right positions so he can give them the ball. If this happens then he will make fewer mistakes and can continue protecting the centre backs. He needs a bit of belief at the moment, but he is still a great player.”

The idea that Fabinho would have looked better with Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai or Nicolo Barella – Liverpool’s other top midfield targets – alongside him makes sense. And it perhaps makes more sense to sign replacements for Fabinho’s midfield partners than Fabinho himself, if indeed you believe that all he needs to return to somewhere near his best is “players in the right positions” around him, given his role is the least energetic of the three.

But that doesn’t take into account the need for further protection for the back four as a result of their steady decline or indeed the obvious decline of the man himself, who as Jamie Carragher put it, was “like a ghost” last season. He was consistently found wanting unlike Jordan Henderson and other midfielders, whose form peaked and troughed through the campaign. While they looked like they needed a good break, Fabinho looked broken.

Liverpool duo Darwin Nunez and Fabinho clap the supporters

The arrival of Mac Allister and strong links with Barella suggest Liverpool may just agree with Rafa’s assessment.

Mac Allister will wear the No.10 and may play as one, but probably more as a No.8 – surely no deeper than that. While Barella has on occasion operated as a defensive midfielder, they would be limiting the Italian’s better qualities if he is being targeted with that role in mind, and Szoboszlai is the most attack-minded of the three.

A midfield three of Mac Allister, Barella/Szoboszlai and Fabinho would be well-balanced and, were they all in their prime, potentially dominant. But Fabinho would stick out like a sore thumb, with miles on the clock under Klopp giving the appearance of a player far older than 29.

Perhaps Liverpool are hoping they can muddle through next season with a combination of Fabinho and Stefan Bajcetic, but impressive though the Spaniard was before his injury last term, that would be a lot to ask of an 18-year-old.

Interest in Manu Kone, as with Barella, suggests a defensive midfielder isn’t a priority, as does the more optimistic (and quite possibly invented) links with Federico Valverde. Khephren Thuram and Romeo Lavia are in the right mould, operating in the main from a deeper position.

Failing to land one of that pair, or another defensive midfielder, would leave the midfield rebuild half, or rather two-thirds, done. Because although there’s some merit to Benitez’s claim that Fabinho has suffered through the demise of his fellow midfielders, Liverpool will suffer more without making a replacement for him the priority of the summer.