Fabinho On Klopp's Hugs, Mbappe To Liverpool And Trent Becoming The GOAT
Fabinho can't hold back the huge smile breaking out across his face. "Yes," he laughs. "He always hugs us and yes, they're nice hugs." Liverpool's midfield sentry is referring to the tactile approach of his affectionate manager, Jurgen Klopp.
The German can't get to his players quick enough after a big win, charging on to the pitch to show his appreciation with a beaming grin.
Fabinho's form before his ankle injury in November certainly invited extra intensity to those post-match clinches. After a slow start to his Anfield career, the Brazilian midfielder has developed into a key cog in Klopp's high-pressing red machine.
The 26-year-old sat down with SPORTbible ahead of this weekend's FA Cup fourth round clash against Shrewsbury to discuss Liverpool's treble-winning credentials, Trent Alexander-Arnold as the heir to Dani Alves' throne and why Kylian Mbappe would give Klopp a headache.
Whether you're a Game of Thrones fan or not, you've probably seen the iconic gif of a lone Jon Snow unsheathing his sword as a cavalry of horses charge towards him. Later on in the battle, Snow, suffocating at the bottom of the gruesome conflict has to fight his way out of the stampeding horde to take a life-saving gasp of air.
These two terrifying moments give you an idea of how Fabinho felt when he stepped onto the Premier League battlefield for the first time.
This wasn't Ligue 1, where he could drop deep to collect the ball and take his time. Liverpool's £43 million signing from Monaco initially struggled to cope with the swirling chaos raging around him.
But in the second half of last season, he started to find his rhythm. Stationed in front of the back four in a 4-3-3 he won possession and shifted Liverpool's breakneck attacks into first gear with smart distribution.
His form continued into this season, building his confidence and authority in the centre of midfield.
Now it's hard to imagine him being overrun by the pace and intensity of the English game. Patience and the help of Liverpool's assistant manager, Pep Lijnders, helped him finally settle.
"Pep speaks Portuguese so he was very important for me at the beginning," he explains at the launch of the new adidas Predator 20 Mutator. "I knew I would have the opportunity to prove myself I just had to be prepared.
"When I started to play, I showed the coach that I could be part of the team, that I was reliable, that he could trust me."
On the training pitch, Fabinho absorbed Klopp's tactical plan and in the gym he worked on beefing up so he could absorb the high-speed collisions.
The manager knew his Brazilian acquisition would need time to acclimatize. He was switching from a 4-4-2 alongside Tiemoue Bakayoko at Monaco, to the central operator in a midfield three. To put him at ease, Klopp took a very English approach.
"It's hard to describe Klopp," he says, laughing as he pictures his grinning, bespectacled manager. "He's a very funny guy and makes a lot of jokes.
"He was teasing me a lot at the beginning, which was embarrassing because my English wasn't very good. He always knows what to say in the moment."
Fabinho soon made himself indispensable by bringing calm to Klopp's ferocious red storm, prompting Lijnders to christen him "the lighthouse".
But his progress was halted in November when he suffered ankle ligament damage during the 1-1 draw with Napoli in the Champions League.
After two months of rehabilitation, he returned to action during last night's 2-1 win over Wolves.
While he has been missed, Liverpool have continued to charge towards their first title in 30 years. With 16 matches to play the Merseysiders find themselves 16 points clear with a game in hand.
After beating Manchester United on Sunday, they're unbeaten in 40 league games, a run that dates back to January 2019.
On Sunday they travel to New Meadow to take on Shrewsbury Town in the fourth round of the FA Cup, before facing a sterner test in the form of Atletico Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Pundits have suggested they're one of the greatest Premier League teams in history, despite never winning the trophy. Does Fabinho agree?
"I might be too young to answer this question," he says with a coy smile. "But in the last few years we have definitely been one of the best teams.
"You have to respect the numbers we're achieving at the moment, even if you don't want to talk about them.
"Records and stats don't make us the best, but if we carry on doing what we're doing we will win trophies. Then we have to keep doing that season after season."
Getting the right blend of characters in the dressing room is an exact science and Liverpool have managed to find the winning alchemy with shrewd business in the transfer market and the nurturing of young talent.
Behind Fabinho, stands Virgil van Dijk, the imperious central defender who has managed to transform the team both defensively and offensively with his composure, vision and intelligence.
Eyebrows were raised when he joined from Southampton for £75 million in January 2018.
"Southampton have got one hell of a deal," said Alan Shearer at the time. "Van Dijk is a good player, yes, but for £75m? No, he's not worth it at all." He finished second behind Lionel Messi in last year's Ballon d'Or.
"People always notice strikers more than defenders, but he should have won when you consider what he did individually and how he helped the team win the Champions League," says Fabinho. "He's an amazing player, one of the best in the world."
To the right of the Dutchman is academy graduate Trent Alexander-Arnold, the right-back, posing as a playmaker, currently in the midst of overthrowing Dani Alves.
Pundits have started to hail the scouser as the best full-back on the planet, overtaking Alves, the most decorated player in history with 40 major honours to his name.
"If you talk about everything he has conquered and won, Dani Alves is one of the best players to have ever played the position," says Fabinho.
"He's still incredible at 36 years old, one of the stars of Brazilian national team, playing the way he always has. As for Trent, his passing is amazing. He has everything to become one of the best in the world."
Attacking full-backs are nothing new, but Alexander-Arnold's creative powers are redefining the role.
The England international has 10 Premier League assists this season, making him the first defender to register 10 or more in multiple Premier League seasons. Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign he has provided the final pass for 22 top flight goals.
From whipped crosses and pinpoint through-balls to crossfield switches and simple keep-ball, Alexander-Arnold can do the lot.This attribute has led to suggestions his future lies in midfield - a transition Fabinho knows all about.
"He has the quality to move into the midfield. I started as a full-back, before moving into midfield and that experience helped me a lot," he says.
Leonardo Jardim, who coached Fabinho at Monaco, moved him from full-back to midfield where his defensive presence unshackled the attacking talents of Bernardo Silva and Mbappe.
Mbappe scored 24 goals in all competitions as Monaco beat Paris Saint-Germain to the Ligue 1 title in 2016-17 and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Liverpool's front three is arguably the best in the world, but what would Mbappe bring to their firepower?
"At this moment it would be a headache for Liverpool if we had him here because our attacking trio is very good," he admits.
"But I know Mbappe's quality, he's already one of the best players in the world, so he would obviously improve any team. Right now he plays for Paris Saint-Germain and we have to respect that."
The former teammates could face each other in the next round of the Champions League if Liverpool overcome Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain beat Borussia Dortmund.
Klopp's team enter the knockout stages as one of the favourites. With the Premier League title all but won, can they add the FA Cup and Champions League for a historic treble?
"We don't ask ourselves this question, we just want to carry on in this good moment," says a cautious Fabinho. "Firstly, we have to win games - that's our mission - that will give us a chance of achieving our big objective, but we can't focus on that yet. It will put too much pressure on us."
Liverpool are currently playing with the fluency of a side completely free from pressure. But win the treble and Klopp with give Fabinho and Co. a squeeze they'll never forget.
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