It is safe to say that Fulham’s recruitment last summer was much better than their last two attempts in the Premier League. After throwing over £100 million at the squad prior to the 2018/19 season and subsequently getting relegated with an overinflated, overpaid group of players and then struggling to sign the quality to keep them up again ahead of the 2020/21 campaign, Fulham’s approach to recruitment was far better following Championship promotion this time around.
The likes of Andreas Pereira, Willian and Issa Diop were all recruited and have improved the team, but the cream of the crop is undoubtedly Portugal international João Palhinha.
Marco Silva’s side sit 7th in the league in their return to the top flight and are only outside the European places on goal difference. The Cottagers are punching well above their weight and have become hard to beat alongside their exciting but industrious style of play. Palhinha is integral to that and is really enjoying life in West London, but performances such as those that the former Sporting CP man have put in do not go unnoticed. There have been loose links to the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, but it is highly likely Palhinha will stay put until at least the summer.
So, what are the biggest strengths in Palhinha’s game, what is his style of play, and why has he been so impressive in his debut Premier League campaign?
Up until the £20 million move to Fulham last summer, then-26-year-old Palhinha had played the entirety of his career in his native Portugal. He has been a Sporting CP player since the age of 17 but had loan spells at Moreirense, Belenenses and Braga.
At 6 foot 3, Palhinha is a physical presence at the base of the Fulham midfield. His positioning and ability to read the game also allowing him to play as a central defender, although we are yet to see him perform this role for Fulham. In Fulham’s typical 4231 shape under Silva this season, Palhinha and Harrison Reed act as a double-pivot in front of the the back four, with Pereira in front of the duo as the attacking midfielder. Palhinha and Reed compliment each other well, with Reed buzzing around the midfield and nipping away at the opposition, whilst Palhinha asserts himself with his greater physicality.
Reed is a solid enough midfield player, but Palhinha is a cut above his accomplice. This is not to say Reed is not a valuable asset for Fulham, but he is limited. Palhinha is the superior passer and ball-carrier of the pair. Both, though, tend to keep things simple, retrieving possession and passing it on to the players who are more comfortable picking a line-breaking pass or progressing the ball up the pitch.
As mentioned, primarily Palhinha is a defensive-minded midiflerder and he is very good at what he does in this respect. When compared with midfielders from Europe’s top five leagues over the last year, the Portugal man ranks in the top 1% for tackles per 90 minutes with 4.73. To accompany this, he also averages 1.64 blocks per game (86th percentile), 1.83 clearances (88th percentile) and uses his height to help him to win 2.03 aerial duals per game (90th percentile). These statistics highlight Palhinha’s strength defensively and why he is such an asset in shielding the Fulham back four.
His destructive playing style does come with consequences, though. Palhinha has received seven yellow cards in his 20 Premier League games this season and was suspended by the eighth league game due tohaving collected five cautions at that stage. His absence in Fulham’s midfield was keenly felt in a 4-1 defeat in which his replacement, Nathaniel Chalobah, was sent off after just eight minutes. This is the only time that Palhinha has been absent from the starting line-up in a Premier league this season which is testament to his importance to the side. He fouls often but he is also fouled often as he uses his frame effectively to keep his body between man and ball and protect possession; in fact, on average he is dispossessed just 0.72 times per 90 minutes.
Due to his aerial ability and the way he attacks the ball, Palhinha is also very useful in the opposition penalty area from set-pieces. The midfielder has already risen highest in wins over both Brentford and Southampton to head home crucial goals this season, but showed a different side to his game with a cultured, sweeping, side-foot strike with his favoured right foot from 20 yards out in another win – this time away at Nottingham Forest.
When assessing Palhinha as a player, there are arguably no significant weaknesses to his game. It could perhaps be argued that his passing statistics could be better but, to some extent, that comes with the territory of playing in a transition-focussed Fulham side who are punching above their weight in the Premier League this season. Palhinha attempts an average of 35.37 passes per 90 minutes and completes 28.95, meaning that he has a pass completion of 81.9% (44th percentile). His combined pass distance per 90 minutes reflects the notion that he tends to keep things relatively simple, with his 507.52 yards per 90 putting him in only the 20th percentile of midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues. His progressive pass distance is also low, with 121.66 yards per 90 minutes putting him in the lowest 13% amongst his peers.
If you want a midfield player who does the basics to a very high level and asserts his physical dominance then Palhinha is your man. He traded the comfort zone of Portugal, where he won one league title and three consecutive Taça de Liga trophies, for a crack at the Premier League to the delight of Fulham fans.
The Cottagers faithful would be wise to enjoy him whilst they can, as he is sure to have plenty of admirers in the Premier League and beyond after a very impressive maiden campaign in England.