At Liverpool they have a nickname for their Brazilian midfielder-cum-defender Fabinho.
They call him Flaco and it translates from Spanish to English as ‘skinny’. It fits but so does another suggestion.
What about ‘Virgil’?
Fabinho is described by his Liverpool team-mates as the ‘skinny one’ in the first-team squad
The Brazilian (left) opens up to Sportsmail about all things Liverpool as they defend the title…
‘That’s funny because some of my friends have joked about that,’ Fabinho told Sportsmail this week. ‘Recently they sent me a montage they made. It was Virgil’s hair and my face…’
Fabinho is laughing but he takes the point. Liverpool’s defence of their Premier League title was said to be over the moment Virgil van Dijk damaged his knee at Everton in October. Things got even worse when Joe Gomez did similar while training with England a few weeks later.
But here we are at Christmas. Liverpool are top of the league and unbeaten domestically since that bad day at Goodison Park and one of the reasons for that has been the form of the 27-year-old smiling in to a Zoom camera from his club’s new training base.
Fabinho has transitioned from centre midfield to central defence so seamlessly it has occasionally been possible to forget that Van Dijk has not been there.
Fabino (left) has stepped in while centre-back Virgil van Dijk (right) is out with a knee injury
But it has not been an accident that the Brazilian with hardly any competitive experience of the position has performed so well. It turns out the planning had been going on almost from the day he arrived on Merseyside in the summer of 2018.
‘Back then the coach saw the need for someone to be available so I started working on that position, getting used to it, working with potential partners,’ Fabinho revealed.
‘We had three centre backs at the time so it was all just a test for me, just to be prepared. The coach had identified that there could be a need further down the line.
‘So when I came in I felt good and comfortable and over time it’s got easier. When Virgil got injured I expected to come in as centre-back and even the other players were joking. They were saying: ‘Fabinho the defender is back, he is here’.
Fabinho (left) said he was nervous when first asked by Jurgen Klopp (right) to play in defence
‘Yes I was nervous at first but I think I have grown in to it.’ Fabinho has previously described Van Dijk as the ‘best defender in the world’ and ‘the leader of our team’.
He does not back away from those statements now.
‘Virgil is the one player you don’t want or expect to be injured,’ he said.
‘Last season he played in all 38 league games. He is never tired, never injured and the one you can always rely on. He really is the leader and when you lose someone of those qualities it’s a great shock.
‘We were just shaking our heads at the time and didn’t want to admit it was true. I remembering hearing the news reports and hoping they were false.’
Van Dijk’s (right) serious injury threatened to derail Liverpool’s Premier League title defence
With that in mind, the task of replacing him was significant. By his own admission, Fabinho is not a natural leader but he has had to step up.
With Gomez also missing and Joel Matip also sporadically absent, Fabinho has become the senior defender, playing alongside young players like Nat Phillips, Neco Williams and even, at Fulham recently, club skipper Jordan Henderson.
None of this has derailed Liverpool and though Fabinho stresses his progress has not always been as serene as it has appeared, it has received endorsement from the man himself.
‘When I first came to Liverpool I identified the areas that I needed to improve and I watched Joel Matip a lot in terms of defending,’ he recalled.
‘I have talked and learned from him. But then this season at Chelsea I played in defence with Virgil at Chelsea and he gave me pointers about positioning and things.
Fabinho (middle) said a partnership with Van Dijk (left) at Chelsea this season developed him
‘Immediately after his injury he didn’t say too much but after a few games he sent me a message congratulating me and saying I was playing well. That was great to hear.
‘Now I just want to be able to watch his game and pick up things I should be doing, particularly the passes he makes. I would like to do that.
‘He is the best in his position so it’s important that I look to his game.’
The statistics show that Fabinho and Van Dijk are actually very different kinds of defenders. Fabinho scores highly on blocks, interceptions and tackles while Van Dijk is all about headers and quick recovery runs and sprints.
The perfect defensive partnership one day then?
Fabinho claims he will return to his regular midfield role when van Dijk returns from injury
‘Well we hope he returns soon and has a perfect recovery,’ smiled Fabinho.
‘He makes a real difference to the day to day in the dressing room and of course he will get his position straight back from me.
‘I don’t know what the coach will do but I am sure Virgil will go straight in to the defence and I will go in to midfield.
‘I hope that’s as soon as possible.’
Fabio Henrique Tavares was on the books as a youth at the great Brazilian club Fluminese. He then spent some time on loan at Real Madrid. So he knows what a big club feels like and expects.
He said in the summer that last year’s Premier League title win means Jurgen Klopp’s team ‘will always be remembered’. Equally, he understands what a back to back success would mean.
‘Yes this team will be remembered for how well we play, the quality of our football and for winning the title,’ Fabinho nodded.
‘But to fight for the second one would put us further in to football history. It would put us up there with teams in the Premier League that have won back to back titles. Teams like Manchester City.
‘It would put us on the higher level and put us with the best teams in the history of the league.
‘Taking in to account everything that has happened this year, the difficulties of no fans in the stadiums and the busy run of fixtures and injuries we have had, it all adds to making the second title more special than the first one if we could do it.
Fabinho (right) has won the Champions League and Premier League since arriving at Anfield
‘It would show that we have this constant desire at the club to be winners.’ The current campaign has not been an easy one for anybody in the Premier League and the defending champions have certainly had their issues.
Tomorrow they will face West Brom at Anfield having not played since the 7-0 dismantling of Crystal Palace eight days ago.
Apart from international breaks that is the longest Liverpool have gone without a fixture since the second week of September.
Klopp has made his feelings known about some of the TV scheduling that he feels has contributed to his squad’s problems with muscle injuries and Fabinho has suffered from the curse himself, pulling a hamstring against Midtjylland in the Champions League in October.
Klopp’s (second right) lead the way on Christmas Day for the second consecutive season
‘When a team is playing in all competitions, we know it will be intense,’ explained Fabinho.
‘We expect it. But this year even more so. The coach is just positioning and fighting to protect the players’ health.
‘We play on a Wednesday night and then a Saturday morning so it’s logical that we don’t want things to be made worse. It’s not that we want an advantage, just not to be worse.
‘I think it’s reasonable that you [the league] try to protect players’ health and support teams playing in Europe. You also have to consider what a long injury list we have had. So that is what the coach is doing.
The Liverpool manager has complained throughout the season about fixture scheduling
‘As players we love playing game after game. But sometimes we don’t think about – or we forget about – our need for rest. That’s the manager’s job and he brings in the changes when needed.
‘He has all the experience as he has been in similar situations before. He is trying to protect us.’
Fabinho was signed by Liverpool from Monaco two days after their Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in May 2018. There was some interest from both Manchester clubs but it was Liverpool who showed him the love.
Having played as a right-back for a significant chunk of his career, the Brazilian has slowly emerged as one of the best holding midfield players in world football.
He started this season telling himself he must shoot more, encouraged by a spectacular long-range goal against Palace after last season had emerged from its spring lockdown.
A goal against Crystal Palace last season (above) has convinced Fabinho to shoot more
Circumstances have changed that but he has not forgotten it. In his head he remains a midfield player.
At the home he shares with his wife Rebeca on the Wirral, there is plenty of football talk. Rebeca was a player of note herself and played for Monaco. Now retired she has said ‘my dreams have come true in Fabinho’s feet’.
‘She has a history in football but she knows me so avoids commentating on the game when I come in after a match,’ Fabinho smiled.
‘She waits for me to ask because I may not react very positively if I am not happy with how I have played. She will usually wait before she says anything…
‘Her favourite player was Ronaldinho so it’s very difficult for me to get anywhere near her idol but in my position and with my qualities I do my best to come close to being her favourite player!’
A Brazilian Christmas is celebrated on the 24th.
Fabinho (middle) celebrated Christmas in a Brazilian-style way on Christmas Eve this year
‘Usually with a table full of food and lots of singing,’ Fabinho said.
This Christmas Eve found Fabinho at work. He stresses that versatility has long since been a strong point but it is clear his recent success out of position has come from hard graft and preparation as much as anything.
This interview was conducted with Fabinho speaking his native Portuguese but his English is more than passable. Indeed two words of his adopted language do tumble out when it’s put to him that playing at centre back is easier than midfield anyway.
‘Not really…’ he said, with a puff of the cheeks.
It seems likely that when Van Dijk does return, he will do so to find his first team shirt ready and waiting on its peg.