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How will Fulham deal with the absence of Europe's top tackler?

Posted on March 03, 2023

In recent months, Premier League teams sought to bolster their midfield, and unsurprisingly so. In such a key area of the pitch, the relevant investment is vital. Manchester United brought in Casemiro, while Tottenham signed Yves Bissouma, who hasn't had quite the same impact as the Brazilian workhorse, but swelled the ranks nonetheless. Liverpool are paying the price for a lack of new faces and Chelsea made their move to improve in January as they landed Enzo Fernandez.

As has been proven by Casemiro and his addition to the United fold, a top quality midfield capture can be transformative. Outside of the recognised Big Six, this is very much the case a little further down the table. Fulham's marquee signing this season was Joao Palhinha, the central midfielder joining from Sporting CP last summer. Having been linked with a Premier League switch in the past, the Cottagers took something of a gamble to spend big to bring Palhinha to England, yet he has surpassed expectations and then some.

The issue with Fulham previously has been that they spent wildly in the summer and with no direction, they suffered, ultimately relegated in 2019 and again in 2021. This season, though, has been different. Fulham took a while to get going in the summer market, but made their most important signing first as they secured Palhinha's services.

At the base of the midfield in Marco Silva's favoured 4-2-3-1 system, Palhinha has forged an impressive understanding with Harrison Reed to provide the relevant protection for the defence. A worry about the former was a perceived lack of mobilty, with the speed of the Premier League perhaps highlighting this physical shortcoming, yet the latter is the one who buzzes about the midfield to disrupt the rhythm of opponents, and this allows Palhinha to play his best game, which is ball winning and recyling possession.

It's no wonder, then, that Palhinha has made at least 11 more tackles (101) than any other player in Europe's top five leagues this season. This accounts for 24.9% of Fulham's total 405 tackles in the 2022/23 Premier League campaign. That he has returned a tackle success rate of 74.8% shows just how effective the 27-year-old has been out of possession and this has contributed towards Fulham's solid defensive record. Indeed, Silva's side have shipped just 31 league goals this season, four fewer than top-four chasing Tottenham.

Of course, given the style of play coupled with the position he plays in, it increases the risk of Palhinha landing in hot water with the officials. While the Portugal international isn't necessarily a dirty player - 27 fouls committed ranks 25th in England's top tier - it's the manner of the fouls that has seen him pulled up. As such, Palhinha has received more yellow cards (10) than any other player in the Premier League this season.

This means Palhinha will miss Fulham's next two league games as they make the short trip down the Thames to take on west London rivals Brentford before they welcome title chasing Arsenal to Craven Cottage in the penultimate round of fixtures before the international break. As things stand, Fulham sit outside the top six on goal difference only following Liverpool's win over Wolves in midweek as one of the pre-season favourites for relegation push for a European finish. Silva now needs to find the best way to set his side up for successive London derbies without the services of his midfield lynchpin.

Palhinha has started all but one of Fulham's 25 league games this season, missing the welcome of Newcastle at the start of October due to suspension. Fulham went on to lose 4-1, conceding 12.9% of their total goals in those 90 minutes against the Magpies. His replacement that day - Nathaniel Chalobah - was given his marching orders in the eighth minute as the Cottagers went on to suffer their heaviest home Premier League defeat since a 4-0 loss to Newcastle on the final day of 2018/19 campaign. Of course, playing with 10 men for 82 minutes was never going to be easy for Silva and his men to navigate, yet considering Palhinha has been sent off just once in league duties since the start of the 2018/19 season, they would have stood a much stronger chance of securing a result with the former Sporting man in the XI.

The issue now is that without Palhinha, it's more than likely that Fulham will be all the more frail defensively. Chalobah is no longer a Fulham player, so that rules him out, while Tom Cairney is currently sidelined due to injury. Sasa Lukic joined in the January window to swell Fulham's midfield ranks, yet has registered just two league appearances following his arrival, both from the bench, so lacks the game time and match fitness to seamlessly slot in alongside Reed.

There is also the issue that Lukic is a different midfielder from Palhinha, with his best work coming on the ball rather than off it. That's not to say the Serb can't carry out some of the necessary defensive duties, but rather it's not to the same standard as Palhinha. Either way, the latter's spell on the sidelines due to a ban is going to hinder Fulham's push for a European finish. Few would have had the Cottagers down for a top six spot with 14 games to play, and the immediate impact of Palhinha is a core reason behind their flying campaign under Silva. He'll be sorely missed against Brentford and Arsenal in the coming gameweeks.