It felt like Fabio Carvalho’s breakthrough moment at Liverpool
“Liverpool fans baffled: Why is rising star Fabio Carvalho mysteriously absent from the team?”
Anfield on a warm night in August. Newcastle United’s weary defense failed to deal with a pass into the area, and Carvalho, lurking at the far post, hooked it into the roof of the net from two yards out in the eighth minute of stoppage time.
Carvalho rushed past the Newcastle fans towards the corner flag, his eyes bright with delight, his arms spread, tumbling to the ground and being embraced by his teammates.
That was a crucial goal in a major game for Liverpool, who had struggled to start the season, and a significant one for Carvalho. His first goal for the club had come four days earlier in a lopsided 9-0 win over Bournemouth, but it felt like a big statement from a guy who had only turned 20 the day before.
Carvalho had joined Liverpool from Fulham as a prospect, albeit a very gifted one, but he was making the most of his opportunity in the present. His potential appeared to be endless.
Six months later, Carvalho’s fortunes since that day serve as a reminder that even the most talented players’ journeys rarely run smoothly. The offensive midfielder from Portugal, who relocated to London with his family in 2013, has not played a minute of Premier League football since coming off the bench late in a pre-World Cup win over Southampton in November.
Since then, he has only featured in domestic cups: against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup fourth-round defeat in December, in which he scored but was also taken off at half-time, and against Wolves in an FA Cup third-round replay in January. In both games, he played on the left wing.
Carvalho has appeared as an unused replacement seven times in the Premier League and once in the Champions League since then. Carvalho did not play in Liverpool’s resurgent wins over Everton and Newcastle, and when the team struggled to a goalless draw at Crystal Palace last weekend, Carvalho remained on the bench, with Klopp putting his faith in other youngsters, Harvey Elliott and later Stefan Bajcetic. Carvalho was once again on the bench as the game against Wolves was effectively won.
“Fab is a very young player as well and a huge talent,” he said when questioned about Carvalho’s predicament ahead of the Newcastle encounter by The Athletic. “He played well for us in a couple of games and now the scenario is we have to make the squad and he couldn’t make it. That’s the way it is. That is correct.
“He didn’t play very often since, in my opinion, we needed various skills when we first started or when we changed throughout games. That’s all there is to it. He did nothing wrong, he progressed and matured greatly. He’s a nice child. That’s fine since he’s in the middle of the group and the team.
“But obviously not in a good mood. At the moment, you can’t see that (from him) on the field, or when I see him, it’s not really clear, but I can imagine (that’s how he feels) because he’s a footballer who wants to play and hasn’t had enough opportunities. That doesn’t help much, but it’s just one more thing to deal with in a long career. And it appears to me that he is taking it as well as he can at the moment.”
So the question is, why should Carvalho be out in the cold?
Like Elliott, a close friend of Carvalho’s since high school, there is some doubt about his defensive discipline. Both players are attack-oriented explorers who excel in innovative roles. Nonetheless, tracking back, pressing, and turning over possession remain critical to their team.
Liverpool will work with Carvalho on this, as well as trying him re-calibrate his tactical knowledge of his job. Carvalho was a playmaking No 10 at Fulham, where he blossomed under Marco Silva. He is currently undergoing a phase of readjustment. Carvalho is favored on the left side of midfield or attack because Liverpool’s regular configuration does not allow for a roving playmaker. Yet, getting minutes in such places has proven tough.
Liverpool’s injury record, along with his potential, pushed Klopp to look to Carvalho, but the manager now has more choices with the signing of Cody Gakpo and the return to fitness of Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota.
What has been abundantly evident for some time is that Liverpool must rebuild their midfield this summer. Their attack appears to be a more brutal force than in past seasons. Liverpool have failed to score in four of their past seven league games. Their goalless draw at Selhurst Park was their third this season in the league. It is more than they had in the previous three seasons combined.
If there was ever a time to give Carvalho another chance, it had to be during that run of games, right?
Instead of loaning him out in January, Liverpool preferred to keep Carvalho with the group to guarantee his development at the club continued.
He is still highly regarded, and Pep Lijnders’ gushing eulogy in pre-season is as important today as it was then.