Joao Palhinha is 24 year old Portuguese defensive midfielder. He plays for Braga, who are 3rd in the league, but is on loan from Sporting. Palhinha tends to come out well in stat searches for ball winning defensive midfielders and was Tifo Football’s recommendation for who Spurs should buy in their Sensible Transfers series. I’m going to do a short thread on his suitability for Spurs which I’ll link at the end of this article.
He’s spent this season mostly playing in a 3–4–3 or 4–2–3–1 in a double pivot. He stays back and covers the back line and has a largely defensive role. In the 3–4–3, it often ends up as a 3-diamond-3 with Palhinha staying deep. He is involved in the buildup phased, as I’ll talk about, but once the ball gets to the attacking unit he’s uninvolved and doesn’t seek the ball.
As you can see they use a wide back three with wing backs hugging the touchline and pushing up very high. The front three are narrow with wingers occupying spaces between the lines and trying to pin defenders. Palhinha is the deeper of the midfield two but tends to be tightly marked as the defence have the ball.
In possession he’s safe in possession, completing 86% of his short passes. He sits in front of the back line in build up as a pivot but doesn’t work hard to find good positions and space. Nor did he do much to help defenders when they were in trouble and being pressed a lot. On the ball he mainly keeps it simple, but is effective at the role. He checks his shoulders, receives side-on and plays to his midfield partner and then pretty much withdraws and lets the attacking unit attack and he’ll just hover in the central channel in front of the defence. He could do more to receive on the turn and open his hips but that’s not really something he needs to do, he’s not trying to be a deep lying playmaker. He understands that his main role is defensive and in possession he does his role of connecting the back three to the attacking unit well even it is is without flair the technical ability of Jorginho.
He doesn’t take risks in deeper areas and retains possession well. He attempts 1.2 dribbles /90 but tend to be after winning possession in a tight situation where he brings the ball away rather than trying to break lines like you see from Ndombele or Thiago. He has pretty good awareness and knew when he could receive on the turn or whether to go backwards. He’s calm on the ball and won’t rush play, just happy to retain it.
He isn’t the most progressive passer but can spread to wingbacks and will sometimes play diagonals into the wide channels for wingers/wing backs in space which were pretty could but the weighting could’ve been better a few times.
They press high but he isn’t involved in the high press. Here’s an example where the opposition are building up from deep in a 4–4–2. Their central midfielders have dropped and they’re building up using what I call ‘a box’, shown by the red lines. Braga’s front three and central midfielder press high, man-to-man. Palhinha sits back, and along with the wing backs will press the wider areas if the opposition use their full backs.
Out of Possession
Palhinha’s main asset is his defensive output. He is a physical presence in midfield, he’s 6’3″ with a wide frame even if he isn’t the most muscular. He’s an aerial threat and has a strong build and brings physicality to defence which he uses well.
He makes 3.8 tackles and 1 interception in Portugal this season, which are great numbers. He can be quite front facing in 1v1s meaning the ball can get knocked past him or his doesn’t deal with changes of direction that well. But he’s physical and good at getting his body between the ball and attacker, shielding away the attacker before picking his head up and playing a simple pass to a teammate.
The midfielder is great physically but not so much athletically. He can seem quite lethargic, heavy footed and even uncoordinated when moving around. He lacks intensity and his work rate isn’t that high, but his defensive output shows it doesn’t need to be, his role isn’t to cover large distances but hover in the central channel and win the ball. He isn’t a Kanté style dynamic ball-winner, he is more of an anchor man who is difficult to get past.
But although he looks slow he actually can hit good speed when needed to get across and press the ball but it’s just rarely used. He rarely hits the higher gears and lacks agility and explosiveness. Which is why his interceptions numbers aren’t great. At times I thought he was slow to react to play and pushing to make an interception but I think it’s more that he lacked the explosiveness to get there. Whereas Kanté or Samassékou would dive in and get across to it.
If I was to compare him to a player, when I was watching him he often reminded me on Nemanja Matic. He’s tall with low intensity, sound passing and good ball winning while not being the most dynamic or agile. He’s decent overall technically to not get shown up but he’s not going to create much or create clips for highlight videos, but his role is to protect the defence, win the ball and get the ball to the attacking unit, which he does really well.
Sporting are just below Braga in the table and are a bit of a mess as a club at the moment. He’s valued at £5.4m on Transfermarkt and could be great value for clubs who need to defensive midfielder to break up the midfield and add a physical presence. I think he works best in a midfield two, so is well suited to a 4–2–3–1 or 3–4–3 that Braga have used him. I’m less sure how he’d work as a 6 in a 4–3–3 but would need to see it.
But Braga’s manager, Rúben Amorim, recently left for Sporting and therefore he may be keen to keep the midfielder next season when he returns to his parent club so may be reluctant to let him go.