Portuguese midfielder Joao Palhinha has been linked with Liverpool and Manchester United having excelled for Fulham this season; follow Man Utd vs Fulham in the FA Cup quarter-final live on Sky Sports' digital platforms on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm
Monday 20 March 2023 07:46, UK
Joao Palhinha likes a tackle. In fact, he loves a tackle. And Fulham supporters love him for it.
Stand outside Craven Cottage on a matchday and you might struggle to differentiate between the sound of the home side scoring and that of their towering No 26 steaming into a challenge.
So far this season, there have been 102 of them, 15 more than any other Premier League player. Another seven and he will equal the highest total in the whole of last season too.
Palhinha was still a Sporting Lisbon player then but it has been clear ever since his £20m arrival at Fulham in the summer that he is tailor-made for the full-throttle football of the Premier League.
"In Portugal, I felt I couldn't make a tackle, every touch was a yellow card," he said. "Here, it's completely different… It was one of the most important things behind my decision to come."
That is not to say his disciplinary record this season is without blemishes. A total of 10 bookings - the joint-most in the division - has caused him to miss three Premier League games through suspension.
It is not coincidental that Fulham have lost them all, the latest defeat coming against Arsenal on Sunday. Marco Silva might not care to admit it, but his side are not the same without Palhinha.
The bite and ball-winning brilliance he brings to their midfield is impossible to replicate but his tackles are not just a means of disrupting opposition attacks or protecting his defence.
They are also a formidable offensive weapon.
Palhinha is a master of anticipation, extending his long legs at precisely the right moment to dispossess unsuspecting opponents. But it is what happens next that really separates him from the rest.
The 27-year-old has perfected the art of turning defence into attack, timing his challenges not just to secure possession, but to give Fulham an immediate opportunity to hurt their opponents.
This aspect of Palhinha's game can be seen in newly-available statistics which measure expected goals generated in the passages of play that directly follow a player's tackles.
The metric, next possession xG after tackles, has Palhinha well clear of anyone else in the Premier League as the only player whose tackles have been worth more than two expected goals.
It is a novel concept, creating by tackling, but Palhinha's knack for it is unrivalled and it might help to explain why, according to recent reports, he now counts Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, a team built to counter-press, among his suitors.
On occasion, Palhinha has opted to take matters into his own hands.
In the FA Cup fifth-round win over Leeds that set up Sunday's quarter-final with Manchester United, Fulham's opening goal came from Palhinha stealing possession from Marc Roca and, with his next touch, curling a sumptuous long-range shot beyond Illan Meslier.
Usually, though, his first thought is to find a team-mate in a better position, ensuring he stays on his feet when tackling so as to maximise any possible advantage a turnover brings.
Consider the moment in Fulham's very first game of the season, the 2-2 draw with Liverpool, when he pounced on a Thiago Alcantara error straight from kick-off after Aleksandar Mitrovic's opener.
His tackle, executed in trademark fashion, leaning one way and extending a leg the other, allows Andreas Pereira to lay the ball off to Mitrovic, who is able to charge towards goal with two runners to aim at. It is only thanks to alert goalkeeping from Alisson that Bobby De-Cordova Reid doesn't reach his subsequent through-ball.
There was a similar example in the 3-2 win over Leeds in October, with Jack Harrison the man dispossessed soon after Mitrovic had cancelled out Rodrigo's first-half opener.
Palhinha's tackle, just inside his own half, allows Willian to race away from an over-committed Robin Koch, and Palhinha then shows impressive stamina to follow his team-mate and make an overlapping run, receiving his return pass and sending a cross into the Leeds box.
A week after that, in Fulham's goalless draw with Everton at Craven Cottage, there was another Palhinha tackle which generated a scoring chance for Silva's side.
Spotting his opportunity on the half-hour mark, the Portuguese international rushes in to take the ball off Idrissa Gueye as he attempts to dribble his way out of the Everton half, his tackle setting up a four-on-four attack, with Mitrovic's eventual shot requiring a block from James Tarkowski following Antonee Robinson's left-wing cross.
Another example of Palhinha front-foot defending could be seen in Fulham's narrow loss to Tottenham at Craven Cottage in January.
This time, Rodrigo Bentancur is the man robbed of possession, Palhinha's impeccably-timed tackle in the centre circle once again allowing Fulham to spring forward in transition, outnumbering their back-peddling opponents as Pereira feeds Willian, whose diagonal shot forces a smart save from Hugo Lloris.
The examples help to explain why, as well as being worse off defensively in the absence of Palhinha - Fulham have conceded 10 goals in the three Premier League games he has missed this season - Silva's side are less potent in an offensive sense too.
The sample size is small, admittedly, but their numbers for shots, efforts on target and expected goals are all significantly lower without Palhinha. Logically, the same is true of their scoring rate.
What a boost, then, that he is available again for Sunday's FA Cup quarter-final with Manchester United at Old Trafford, where Fulham will be aiming to reach the last four of a domestic cup competition for the first time in 21 years.
Their chances of achieving that feat will be considerably higher with him in the team. Palhinha's tackles, as well as halting Manchester United's attacks, might just provide Fulham's best route to goal.
Follow Man Utd vs Fulham in the FA Cup quarter-final live on Sky Sports' digital platforms on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm