After the past four years have been typified by remarkable squad stability — the exception being Georginio Wijnaldum’s departure for Paris Saint-Germain last summer — where Liverpool have been able to maintain their best players and add a piece or two when necessary, it appears a serious turnover is on the cards this summer
Divock Origi is moving to AC Milan, Sadio Mané has stated his desire to look for a new challenge, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been made available, and Naby Keïta is reportedly being courted by PSG, while James Milner, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Adrián, all on the wrong side of 30, have contracts running out either this summer or next.
While some of these players are likely to be retained, all of them certainly won’t and there is a genuine need for Jürgen Klopp to build his second great Reds team.
The work has already, begun, of course, with the additions of Diogo Jota, Luis Díaz, Ibrahima Konaté and Kostas Tsimikas, as well as the continued development of Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones laying the groundwork, but numbers must be added if the workload is to remain manageable and future is to look as bright as the present.
Enter Fabio Carvalho. The 19-year old isn’t coming in for a superstar fee, but his potential had some of Europe’s giants sniffing around, with the Reds winning the raffle for a mere £7.7m in the end.
Below, we try and decide how real the hype is.
Fábio Leandro Freitas Gouveia Carvalho
Attacking midfielder | Fulham/England/Portugal
DOB: 30/8/02 (19 years old) | Height: 5’8” (173cm)
2021/22 season: 38 appearances
11 goals | 8 assists
Strengths: As one might expect from a Portuguese-born attacking midfielder, Fabio Carvalho is a sleek technician with the ball at his feet. Boasting remarkable close control and an array of body feints, flicks and pivots enabled by his sensational balance and fluid hips that seem to glide out of the way of challenges, the Fulham academy product excels at receiving the ball, drawing pressure and jinking away from a marker or onrushing opponent, before driving into space.
He is rarely stationary, and will make smart runs to drag defenders around consistently, but this is also where Carvalho looks most at home, ball at his feet, moving through the final third at pace with runners in front of him. The comparisons with former Liverpool hero-cum-villain Philippe Coutinho, another diminutive Portuguese speaker with adorable hair who thrived driving through the left-side half-space, come easily, but there are significant differences as well.
First of all, while Coutinho, particularly in his shock collar-era, was prone to a speculative effort from range — taking 61% of his shots from outside the box, as compared to Carvalho’s 22% — the Brazilian’s game was always based around the killer pass or shot. The Reds’ new recruit, however, prefers a simpler pass and move game as he approaches the box, setting up one-twos before moving into space, culminating in a midfielder that only generates 2.2 passes and carries into the penalty area per game, a fine number, but one that would put him 6th in Liverpool’s squad, yet had the fifth most touches inside the box in the entire Championship.
A little over 3.6 shots and shot assists per 90 minutes isn’t the kind of stuff that immediately blows us stat idiots away, but when you add locations and quality to the fact that they were generated by a teenage midfielder, we sit up and take notice. Carvalho’s shots averaged an expected goals value of 0.14 each, a number that would put him fourth on Liverpool’s squad, and his shot assists were worth 0.17 expected goals on average, the fifth highest value in the entire division.
Perhaps the most obvious number to describe Carvalho’s contribution, then, is his top line production. Despite what some may think, teenagers racking up goals and assists at the senior level is fairly uncommon, and the ones that do tend to leave for significant fees. Only one teenager in Europe’s top 15 leagues topped Carvalho’s 18 goal involvements this season, and that was Leverkusen’s €100m-rated Florian Wirtz. While this is certainly not a suggestion the Championship’s Young Player of the Year is as good as the German wonderkid at this point in time, it does go some way towards acknowledging just how rare his production this season is.
On the defensive end, Carvalho puts in the work. Fulham were not the pressing juggernaut Liverpool are — though that can be said of any team on the planet, but Carvalho was involved in more defensive duels than any of the team’s other attackers, and ranked as the 11th busiest defender among attacking players in the division. The intensity of Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpress is on another level, but Carvalho has shown that he possesses the youthful energy necessary to put defenders under pressure consistently.
Question Marks: There’s no two ways about it; the Championship is not the Premier League. Few things, if any, are, but England’s second division is one in which Liverpool reject Harry Wilson would have won the player of the year award had it not been for Newcastle reject Aleksandar Mitrovic racking up 43 goals and seven assists. For a quick comparison, last season’s Championship top scorer, Ivan Toney went from scoring roughly a non-penalty goal every two games to scoring one every five games when Brentford were promoted.
Of course, Carvalho won’t go from playing for a dominant Championship side to one fighting for Premier League survival, but there is no denying that he faces a significant step up in competition and will have to continue to develop in order to keep up with the challenges he’ll face at his new club.
While the 19-year old shows good burst from a standstill and has exceptional balance at pace, he is no mutant athlete in the vein of Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah. He is more akin to Diogo Jota in terms of raw pace, but where the Portuguese shows surprising strength in the challenge, Carvalho’s lighter frame means that Premier League level defenders will be able to nudge him off the ball if they are able to establish solid contact. This is not an impossible thing to address, of course, and Carvalho’s young age means there is plenty of time to work on both his strength and speed, but as of right now, he can only be considered a medium-level athlete at this level.
Although Carvalho is excellent at picking the right pass in a crowded box, his passing range is limited, averaging just three progressive passes per game and less than a single long pass, at a 75% and 48% clip, respectively. The former ability — picking out a team mate at the pointy end of the pitch — might be considered more valuable at a Liverpool side that already boasts outrageous ball progressors deeper down the field, but it does impact Carvalho’s ability to contribute if he were to take up one of the free eight roles in the Reds’ midfield.
Which brings us onto the final question mark: where does he fit? While there is little doubt that Klopp’s Liverpool has evolved over the past few seasons and few players fit the exact same profiles, Fabio Carvalho — mostly featuring as a roaming number ten for Fulham — has no obvious role to play in the current iteration of his new team. The lack of elite passing means a transition to central midfield à la Harvey Elliott is unlikely, the false nine would seem to require a physicality the youngster has yet to demonstrate, and his limited pace prevents him from playing in the wide attacking spots, at least in the manner we’re used to seeing. Klopp has dabbled in the 4-2-3-1 a number of times over the past few years, but it never seems to stick around for long.
The likely solution, then — because this is not a player Liverpool will send back out on loan, he will play minutes next season — is an interpretation of the left attacker role that differs from what Sadio Mané and Luis Díaz has shown in the past, one more akin to Coutinho’s, where coming inside and creating becomes the focus, rather than threatening in behind. It will require a reshuffling of Klopp’s favoured set-up, but then again, that set-up has consistently adjusted to make the most of the talent at hand, and will do so again, should Carvalho prove he’s good enough.
Summary: While there are undoubtedly question marks surrounding Carvalho’s positional fit and his ability to step up to the Premier League challenge immediately, he is also unquestionably a supremely exciting talent with significant experience at the senior level and tremendous upside should his development continue in the manner it has thus far. Beyond that, he was acquired for a pittance, a no-brainer signing enabled both by the club’s competitive success and its accomplished scouting department.
Given patience, Fabio Carvalho has the potential to be a sensational player and a fixture of the first team for the next decade. For the price of half a Xherdan Shaqiri, that’s an easy bet to make.