I still can’t believe that João Palhinha is a Fulham player. The young man who caught Marco Silva’s eye when he was featuring for Sporting’s B side had plenty of offers when it became clear that his boyhood club were considering a sale to finance their incomings this summer. Chief among them were Wolves – and so confident were our next opponents about securing their man, Palhinha’s move to SW6 was held up by a wrangle between agents, who had been supposed to successfully broker that deal. He came to London instead – and, in a peerless performance full of persistent pressure, showed just why the Whites might come to regard the £17m they paid up front for Palhinha to be a heist of the highest order.
“He comes from Lisbon
We only paid 20 million
We think he’s f****** brilliant
Palhiiiiiiiiinnnnnhhaaaaa”The terrace ditty praising our new engine room enforcer, to the tune of She’s Electric by Oasis
Put simply Palhinha is a menace. Silva, whose extensive studying of Fulham prior to be interviewed for the job by Shahid Khan included the traumatic experience of watching the footage of our last two Premier League train wrecks (something that should come with a health warning), recognised that the team that played such sublime stuff on the way to winning the Championship needed to become nastier. Not in an overly physical way, because that would never be his style, but in a manner that upsets an opponent’s rhythm. Pairing Palhinha with Harrison Reed in deeper central midfield roles prevented Liverpool from being able to move the ball freely through the middle – and, for a while, Jurgen Klopp’s disbelief at what was transpiring on the pitch was shared by his side too.
That Fulham completely dominated Liverpool’s midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Thiago Alcantra whilst at a numerical disadvantage says everything about how industrious Reed and Palhinha proved to be. We’ve known all about the ginger from Worthing’s insatiable appetite for hard graft, but Palhinha’s work ethic and success in tackle was phenomenal. As Herbie suggested last month, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. He has been one of the Primeira Liga’s most consistent disrupters for a few seasons now – no player made more successful tackles (185) in that division over the last two campaigns – and has not been flustered on the international stage, as illustrated by a sensational sequence from the European Championships, where he wins possessions from Kingsley Coman and then nonchalantly nutmegs N’Golo Kante.
Liverpool had no answer to Palhinha’s intensity on Saturday. His ‘octopus legs,’ as Frankie fabulously described them yesterday, won back balls he had no right to reach. Palhinha’s stature – at 6ft 3in he’s taller than your classical defensive midfield destroyer with a lumbering gait – belies just how much he is suited to his role in Silva’s side. He might not be rapid, but he’s no slouch in getting around the field. Within his first 45 minutes in English competitive football, Palhinha had won four tackles, made an interception, won his only aerial duel, came out the victor in four of the six battles for possession on the ground, successfully completed seven passes of eleven and had two shots blocked for good measure. Water might cover roughly 70 per cent of the earth, but it has nothing on our new signing. He was everywhere.
As with the whole team’s performance, the manner of how Fulham went about things on Saturday mattered. There was a defiance about the men in white – as if they were making a statement about this term in the top flight being different. On the two previous occasions that the Whites won promotion under the Khans, there was a rather meek capitulation on the opening day – in 2018 to Crystal Palace and, two years later, against Arsenal – that hinted at the problems to come. From the first whistle last weekend, the hosts were first to every ball and determined to make a game of it. How they succeeded.
It is, of course, only one game but it makes a refreshing change to see a Fulham side go toe-to-toe with a top team after the painful Parker passiveness. All the more encouragingly, Silva’s tweaking of his tactics from the Championship meant that the Whites weren’t overwhelmed. Picking up a point against Liverpool, highly fancied for the title before the big kick off, will do wonders for morale. With Silva’s philosophy still heavily weighted towards posing problems for opponents in the final third, Palhinha will be pivotal to Fulham’s prospects. He’s made a magnificent start. Obrigado, João.