Liverpool's defensive dominance in the Premier League this season has been so great that two of their big-money midfield signings have seemingly gone under the radar. When both Fabinho and Naby Keita arrived in the summer of 2018, the expectation was that the two would form a new-look midfield partnership.
Fast-forward a few months later, and in the Reds' huge title clash with rivals Manchester City last Thursday, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp opted for the tried-and-trusted trio of James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum.
We must never start with a Milner - Henderson - Wijnaldum midfield again either. Idk how Klopp didn't learn from our loss to PSG— Connor (@ConnorPosh) January 3, 2019
Almost £100m worth of midfield talent left on the bench for the Reds' biggest game of the season. Tactics and form aside, even the most pessimistic of Liverpool supporters would have expected that six months into their Anfield career, both Fabinho and Keita would have nailed down a starting place in the middle of the park.
For Brazilian midfielder Fabinho, adapting to the much more intense and demanding Premier League has been the biggest battle, with the former Monaco man admitting his difficulties in adjusting to life away from Ligue 1.
He said (as quoted by The Independent): “When I came here I already had an idea about how the Premier League would be, but the difference is the physically intense nature, the difficulty of every single game, whether you’re playing against a team who are at the top or the bottom. It’s always a big challenge.
“I don’t remember many games that we’ve won by a large margin, which demonstrates the competitiveness. The intensity is different from what I am used to (but) I’ve got into the rhythm of the team and got used to the style of play."
After starring alongside Tiemoue Bakayako in AS Monaco's stunning run to the Champions League semi-final in 2017, Fabinho has largely been used as the sole holding midfielder in his first few months at Anfield.
But Klopp's change in system to accommodate the Brazilian has reaped rich rewards: after the Champions League win over Napoli last month, Fabinho had ranked first amongst his teammates for tackles, interceptions, duels won and possession won in the final third in the Premier League.
As Jamie Carragher alluded to, much of the change in Fabinho's recent improvement has been Klopp's decision to utilise the 25-year-old alongside another midfielder. Speaking on Monday Night Football last month, the Liverpool legend remarked: "Another reason for the change is because of Fabinho playing a little bit deeper as well. I think Klopp thinks he is a little bit better suited to playing with two number sixes – two holding midfielders – because that’s how he played at Monaco.”
I seem to be one of a few looking forward to the match tomorrow night, I’m hoping it’s thf first of many times we see a partnership of Keita and Fabinho in midfield👍— John O Sullivan (@Corballyred) January 6, 2019
Whilst Fabinho has begun to show signs of why Liverpool splashed out big money for him, fellow summer recruit Naby Keita's progress has seemingly stalled in recent months after a fine start to his Anfield career.
Indeed, in his press conference on Monday, Klopp admitted (as quoted by Sky Sports): "Is he exactly the player in his best time at Leipzig? No, but he is still adapting - that is how it is. Could he be a bit more confident in the games? Yes.
"Everybody saw, not only at the beginning of the season, how brilliantly he played in the first part. Tottenham [away] was a fantastic game from him without thinking too much. Then we made a change around pre-[Manchester] City game.
"The boys have to deal with it and then a little injury here, little injury there. It was kind of a little setback but he is a fantastic player and I am really happy to have him here."
At Leipzig, Keita was a threat with his incisive runs from midfield and was capable of both scoring and assisting goals. With his new side however, the Guinea international has yet to do either of those. If there was to be one criticism of the make-up of the current Liverpool midfield, it's that there's a lack of creativity and goals from it.
Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum have proven themselves to be industrious and diligent, but their lack of attacking contributions can sometimes let the side down and increase the burden on Liverpool's vaunted front three. The quicker Keita can rediscover his Bundesliga form with RB Leipzig, the more dynamic and offensive-minded the Reds' midfield could be.
So after a less than stellar start, the two summer signings will hope that with a six-month period of adaptation under their wings, they can help guide the Reds to their first league title in over two decades. The 'little and large' partnership used to be all about a strike duo. For Liverpool, Fabinho and Keita's little and large combination could form the heartbeat of the Reds' midfield for years to come.