Fabinho reaping benefit of Klopp expertise
Sunday's clash did not start particularly well for Fabinho. As Moussa Sissoko embarked on a surge out of his own half, the Liverpool midfielder attempted to stop him.
He was stretching to make the challenge but not stretching far enough. Sissoko skipped away, evaded another tackle by Georginio Wijnaldum and, in doing so, launched the move that resulted in Tottenham Hotspur taking the lead after just 47 seconds.
But for the subsequent 5,353 seconds plus stoppage time, it was hard to find any fault with his performance.
No player on the pitch at Anfield made more successful tackles. No player made more interceptions. Only Dejan Lovren made more recoveries. Only Trent Alexander-Arnold created more chances. Only Andy Robertson completed more passes in the attacking third. He was everywhere and everything to Liverpool's performance.
One of Fabinho's few unsuccessful attempts at playing the ball was actually the most significant pass of all. His chip over the top of Tottenham's defence brushed Danny Rose but still found Jordan Henderson, who duly scored Liverpool's equaliser.
The touch off Rose meant the pass was recorded as inaccurate and he was deprived of an assist. It would have garnished an already excellent performance.
There has been much debate recently about the make-up of Liverpool's midfield, with many demanding Jurgen Klopp - whose side face Arsenal in the Carabao Cup tomorrow - make more radical and adventurous selections.
But whatever combinations are suggested, Fabinho's place is non-negotiable. He is the one constant in every preferred line-up because he effortlessly balances the fragile attack-defence equilibrium of Klopp's system.
Pep Lijnders, Klopp's assistant, put it best in an interview with ESPN in February.
"Inside the 'organised chaos' that we want, that we like, he is like a lighthouse," he said of Fabinho.
The Brazilian is there to prevent accidents, sweeping up opposition counter-attacks which come when your full-backs play more like wingers.
"His timing, his vision, his calmness, it gives another dimension to our midfield play," Lijnders explained.
And it is hard to imagine now that this time last year, as Liverpool put in some quite extraordinary defensive performances, Fabinho was struggling to fit in. His debut only came in September. His first Premier League minutes were a month later. In fact, Sunday marked the anniversary of his first league start - a 4-1 win over Cardiff City. In his next, in a 1-1 draw at Arsenal, he played poorly.
"You know, in the beginning I thought we had to change the system to a 'double six' midfield that he was used to at Monaco," Klopp revealed this week.
Liverpool did play with two deep-lying midfielders at times early last season, particularly in the winter months when Fabinho began to play more regularly. It is a testament to his talents that Klopp altered a tried and tested system to better accommodate his new £43.7m signing.
But by and large, Klopp's treatment of the 26-year-old was largely one of tough love, keeping him out of the starting line-up until convinced that he was completely ready. Compare that to this season, when Fabinho has started 14 of Liverpool's 16 games, playing in all but the Carabao Cup win at MK Dons.
Of the 30 league games he has started during his Anfield career, Liverpool have won 25, drawn five and lost none. He was a second-half sub at the Etihad in January, when Manchester City inflicted the only defeat Klopp's side would suffer all season.
Meanwhile, at City, Pep Guardiola has been trialling a new holding midfielder. Rodri has started well enough but there have been occasions where he has appeared out of sync.
Injuries have not helped, least of all the one the Spaniard himself suffered this week, but Guardiola tends to throw new signings straight in regardless. Perhaps if he had given Rodri time to adapt, the gap at the top would be smaller than six points.
After all, they only need look at the base of Liverpool's midfield to see a player who was eased in and is now arguably the league's best in his position.