Joao Palhinha likes an entry. In fact, the loves a tackle. And Fulham fans love him for it.
Stand outside Craven Cottage on a match day and you may find it hard to differentiate between the sound of the home team’s goal and your towering number 26 issuing a challenge.
So far this season, there have been 102 of them, 15 more than any other player in the Premier League. Another seven and it will equal the highest total of the entire last season too.
Palhinha was still a Sporting Lisbon player back then, but it has become clear since his £20m move to Fulham in the summer that he is tailor-made for the high-speed football of the Premier League.
“In Portugal, I felt that I couldn’t make a tackle, every touch was a yellow card,” he said. “Here, it’s completely different… It was one of the biggest things behind my decision to come.”
That’s not to say his disciplinary record this season is without flaws. A total of 10 reserves, the most combined in the division, have seen him miss three Premier League games through suspension.
It’s no coincidence that Fulham have lost them all, the latest defeat against Arsenal on Sunday. Marco Silva may not mind admitting it, but his team isn’t the same without Palhinha.
The bite and ball-winning brilliance he brings to their midfield is impossible to replicate, but his tackling isn’t just a means of disrupting opposition attacks or protecting their 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’s what happens next that really separates him from the rest.
The 27-year-old has perfected the art of turning defense into attack, timing his challenges to not only secure possession, but to give Fulham an immediate chance to hurt their opponents.
This aspect of Palhinha’s game can be seen in recently available statistics that measure expected goals generated in game passages that directly follow a player’s tackles.
The metric, xG next possession after innings, has Palhinha far above any other player in the Premier League as the only player whose innings have been worth more than two expected goals.
It’s a novel concept, to create by knocking down, but Palhinha’s skill is unrivaled and could help explain why, according to recent reports, he now counts Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, a team built for the counter-press, among his suitors.
At times, Palhinha has chosen 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 first goal came from Palhinha stealing possession from Marc Roca and, with his next touch, curling a sumptuous shot long distance beyond Illan Meslier.
Usually though, your first thought is to find a teammate in a better position, making sure they stay on their feet when tackling to maximize any potential advantage a turnover provides.
Consider the moment in Fulham’s season opener, the 2-2 draw with Liverpool, when they pounced on a Thiago Alcantara mistake straight from kick-off after Aleksandar Mitrovic’s opening goal.
His tackle, executed in his trademark fashion, leaning to one side and extending one leg to the other, allows Andreas Pereira to pass the ball to Mitrovic, who can charge towards goal with two runners to take aim. Only thanks to the alert of Alisson’s goalkeepers, Bobby De-Cordova Reid misses his next through ball.
There was a similar example in a 3-2 win over Leeds in October, with Jack Harrison the dispossessed man shortly after Mitrovic disallowed Rodrigo’s opening goal in the first half.
Palhinha’s tackling, just inside his own half, allows Willian to get away from an overcommitted Robin Koch, and Palhinha then shows impressive stamina to follow his teammate and make an overlapping run, receiving his pass back and sending a cross into the area. Leeds Box.
A week later, in Fulham’s goalless draw with Everton at Craven Cottage, there was another tackle from Palhinha that created a scoring chance for de Silva’s men.
Seeing his chance at the half-hour mark, the Portugal international is quick to wrest the ball from Idrissa Gueye as he tries to dribble his way out of the Everton half, his tackle setting up a four-on-four attack, with the eventual Mitrovic . shot that required a block from James Tarkowski after Antonee Robinson’s cross from the left.
Another example of Palhinha’s forward defending could be seen in Fulham’s narrow defeat by Tottenham at Craven Cottage in January.
This time Rodrigo Bentancur is the man from whom possession was stolen, Palhinha’s impeccably timed tackle into the center circle once again allowed Fulham to leap forward in transition, outnumbering their opponents as Pereira feeds Willian , whose diagonal shot forces an intelligent save by Hugo Llorís.
The examples help explain why, as well as being worse off defensively in Palhinha’s absence (Fulham have conceded 10 goals in the three Premier League games they’ve lost this season), Silva’s team are also less potent in a offensive sense.
It is true that the sample size is small, but their numbers of shots, efforts on goal and expected goals are significantly lower without Palhinha. Logically, the same goes for his score rating.
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 try to reach the quarter-final of domestic cup competition for the first time in 21 years. .
His chances of accomplishing that feat will be considerably higher with him on the team. Palhinha’s tackling, as well as stopping Manchester United’s attacks, could provide Fulham’s best scoring route.
Follow Man Utd vs Fulham live for the FA Cup quarter-finals sky sports digital platforms on Sunday; start 16:30