Liverpool 'bewitched' by Fabinho replacement after unsuccessful talks with four transfer targets

Prone to conceding first and lacking clean sheets, Liverpool were notoriously leaky defensively this season.

Conceding 41 times in the Premier League, their defensive record was the third-best in the English top-flight, with only Man City (34) and Arsenal (29) shipping less. Meanwhile, a return of 10 clean sheets was joint-third in the division, with the Gunners claiming 18 and Pep Guardiola’s men and Everton both returning 13 shut-outs.

Evidently, the Reds defence was hardly catastrophic. But the difference was decisive, as Liverpool found out the hard way that there is only so many times you can fall behind in matches and still walk away with a positive result.

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Looking back, it is easy to point the finger in the direction of the Reds’ search for a new holding midfielder last summer. After the unexpected exits of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to Saudi Arabia, they were knocked back by the likes of Moises Caicedo and Romeo Lavia, as the pair joined Chelsea instead for a combined £173m. Also dismissed by Fluminense when enquiring after Andre Trindade, they ended up settling for the left-field signing of Wataru Endo from VfB Stuttgart for £16.2m.

Jurgen Klopp would reference the difficulty Liverpool had in recruiting a new number six when addressing supporters at a test event for the new Anfield Road stand back in December.

“In the summer, the summer we had when a few strange things happened in the transfer market,” he recalled, in reference to Liverpool’s failed pursuits of Caicedo and Lavia. “But here between us, I can say my God were we lucky, eh?

“We didn’t know that in the moment, it didn’t feel like it in that moment. But, meh. I’m really happy that it worked out like that.

“You never know before, but I had a really good feeling before we started pre-season. Clear we had two already with Macca (Alexis Mac Allister) and Dom (Dominik Szoboszlai) in, and we knew there was a chance for Ryan (Gravenberch).

“Then we obviously realised other central defensive midfielders don’t want to join Liverpool (laughs). You see what happens!

“And then we found (Wataru) Endo. He’s an exceptional player, he is, absolutely. He’s 30 years old and an experienced captain of Japan. It’s not possible to be the first pick because the transfer market is not like that. We don’t go for a 30-year-old player who plays in Germany and nearly got relegated.

“Thank God we looked about things twice and had another look. Then it was clear we wanted this boy, and he wanted to come, definitely, and that helps.”

Of course, last summer was not the first time Liverpool had been left disappointed when trying to recruit a new midfielder enforcer. They missed out on Aurelien Tchouameni too in the summer of 2022, when he opted for an £85m switch to Real Madrid from Monaco instead.

Of his decision to snub the Reds, he told Le Parisien: "The first to come forward was Liverpool, we had discussions. Then Real arrived and it my head everything was clear.

“It’s the biggest club in the world. If you want to accomplish great things, to mark the history of your sport, there is no better. So I didn’t hesitate for a second. I told my agent: as long as there is interest, we do everything to go there."

While Liverpool have struggled to recruit a high-profile anchorman, it is a different story for both Man City and Arsenal.

City recruited Rodri from Atletico Madrid in a £62.6m deal back in July 2019, with the Spaniard currently well-established as the best in the world in his position. Meanwhile, Arsenal landed Declan Rice from West Ham United in a deal worth up to £105m last summer, with the England international proving to be one of their players of the season and very nearly inspiring them to Premier League glory.

Fabinho had a similar impact at Anfield when joining from Monaco in a £43m switch in 2018, going on to be a crucial cog under Klopp as Liverpool won every major honour during his five years on Merseyside. But the 30-year-old struggled during his final season on Merseyside before joining Al-Ittihad in a £40m deal.

We’ll never know if Caicedo or Tchouameni could have made a decisive difference for the Reds in place of Fabinho. But as impressive a maiden campaign in England as Endo had, surprising many in the process, it is clear the now 31-year-old is a stop-gap and won’t be Liverpool’s long-term answer.

The Japanese took his time to settle in England, leading Alexis Mac Allister to initially be tasked with playing in a deeper role than he would have liked. While he slowly performed admirably, it became clear once unleashed further forward the difference in the Argentine’s displays when utilised in his favoured role.

Endo and Mac Allister would start 20 and 17 games apiece at number six in the Premier League this season, with Joe Gomez filling in for the win away at Nottingham Forest in March. While Stefan Bajcetic is an option again now fit after long-term injury, he is still only 19 and can’t be thrown in at the deep end yet.

As a result, heading into the summer, new head coach Arne Slot will be tasked with uncovering a solution, with it clear how much of a difference a world class holding midfield specialist can make. And recent reports in Italy suggest Liverpool scouts might have just found a possible answer.

While the Reds continue to be linked with Atalanta’s Teun Koopmeiners, with the Dutchman previously playing under Slot at AZ Alkmaar, Italian outlet Tuttosport suggests that Liverpool have been left ‘bewitched’ by his midfield partner, Ederson, in recent months.

The Brazilian is the more defensive of the pair, despite not being utilised as a lone number six. He is the one who thrives winning the ball back, both in the air and on the ground, be it by tackling or interceptions.

Meanwhile, he has enjoyed an incredible season for the Europa League champions, making 52 appearances and scoring seven goals across all competitions.

Starting 46 times, he would miss just three matches - one a European group-stage dead-rubber with progression to the knockout stages already secured, another a Serie A clash with Genoa through suspension, and the last the final league game of the season when left as an unused substitute against Torino after completing 90 minutes in both the Coppa Italia and Europa League finals. Such durability is certainly ‘bewitching’, with his form even earning him a maiden Brazil call-up ahead of this summer’s Copa America.

Liverpool, of course, witnessed the Brazilian’s talents up close for themselves when suffering a quarter-final defeat to Atalanta in the Europa League. He completed the full 90 minutes at Anfield as they ran out 3-0 winners, before being withdrawn after 75 minutes in their 1-0 loss in Bergamo.

Aged 24, his peak years are still firmly in front of him. And whether transformed into a lone holding midfielder, as Fabinho was before him six years ago, fielded alongside an inverted full-back, or implemented in a tweaked formation under Slot, Ederson could certainly fit the bill at Anfield.

At the very least, he is the type of player that the Reds have both been pursuing and lacking over the past two years. And after two summers of disappointment in the defensive midfield market, should Liverpool move for Ederson, they will hope it can be a case of third-time lucky as they continue to seek an enforcer who can emulate the same decisive impact of Rodri and Rice.