Fabinho has become Liverpool's most important player, and he showed why vs. Tottenham

LIVERPOOL, England -- A year ago, the "What about him? Why is he not playing?" questions stopped as Fabinho finally started a Premier League game for Liverpool.

Cardiff City were the visitors to Anfield on that afternoon and Fabinho was superb, playing a part in Sadio Mane's opener before supplying Mohamed Salah for the third goal in a 4-1 victory.

The influence of the Brazil international over the 12 months since is so pronounced that Liverpool supporters spent Sunday evening, the aftermath of a massive 2-1 home win over Tottenham that extended their lead at the top of the table to six points, fretting over him being one booking away from a suspension. If that happens at Aston Villa on Saturday, the No. 6 would sit out the all-eyes-on-Anfield tussle against defending champions and title rivals Manchester City on Nov. 10. Search for "Fabinho yellow card" on Twitter and wade through the flood of messages likening that scenario to a football apocalypse, with fans imploring Klopp to rest the player against Dean Smith's side this weekend.

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It's hard to conceive the 26-year-old not being Liverpool's controller in any Premier League or Champions League game, let alone in the most pivotal of them. The "very smart footballer" (as Jurgen Klopp labelled him) is pure art in the middle of the park: graceful, gutsy and grand. His ability to anticipate and disarm potentially dangerous situations, while being the fulcrum for the club's progressive play, was again showcased against Spurs. His 11 ball recoveries, four tackles and three interceptions were complemented by two key passes and producing the most passes in the opposition half.

"His impulse of defending forward is absolutely of the highest level," Klopp's assistant Pep Lijnders explained earlier this year. "Inside the 'organised chaos' that we want, that we like, he is like a lighthouse, he controls it.

"His timing, his vision, his calmness, it gives another dimension to our midfield."

Fabinho topped Liverpool's shortlist of four candidates in the summer of 2018 for the No.6 role due to his blend of physicality, "impulse of defending forward," intelligence and versatility. Amusingly, they'd initially tracked him as an option at right-back. That is where Claudio Ranieri used the Brazilian when he joined Monaco on loan from Portuguese club Rio Ave, having spent a season in Real Madrid's Castilla side. It remained Fabinho's position until the second half of the 2014-15 campaign, when Leonardo Jardim made the inspired decision of moving him into defensive midfield.

Liverpool continued to build their file on the player, whom they felt had more defensive nous than Jorginho, who was also on their shortlist along with Atletico Madrid's Thomas Partey. In the end, the latter could not match Fabinho aerially or in the passing, discipline and concentration stakes. The Merseysiders were aware, however, that Monaco's anchor would require a lengthy adaptation to Klopp's multi-faceted demands at the heart of midfield in a quicker, more intense league.

Fabinho played in a double pivot under Jardim and Liverpool initially deployed him alongside Georginio Wijnaldum to help his acclimation. Klopp thought "we had to change the system to a 'double six' midfield that he was used to at Monaco," but that idea was quickly dismissed by the £43.7 million signing's early brilliance after his months of patience on the fringes of the first team.

Fabinho used that period to undertake a specialist gym program, elevating his power and fitness. The sessions focused on strengthening his thighs and core without reducing his speed to the ball. His progress has been so exponential that in the 4-1 Champions League win over Genk last Wednesday, he "played pretty much as the only midfielder in some moments" as per Klopp's admission, with the more attack-inclined Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain operating in front of him.

"Fabi had a lot to do to sort some little gaps which we left open in different situations," Klopp said after that match. "So yes, the job of the No.6 in modern football is incredibly important, and the more offensive players there are around you, the more important it gets.

"But he's not only a gap-closer, a challenger or whatever: He is a very good footballer as well."

Fabinho is also unquestionably vital to Liverpool's ambitions domestically and on the continent, which is why his teammates have nicknamed him Dyson, after the vacuum. The question around Fabinho has morphed from "why is he not playing?" to "how on earth do you play without him?"