Talking Tactics

Will Palhinha or Amrabat dictate key midfield battle?

By Adrian Clarke 1 Nov 2023
Joao Palhinha and Sofyan Amrabat

Adrian Clarke says Man Utd's Moroccan has a point to prove against Fulham's in-form star

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Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be decisive in Matchweek 11.

Player analysis: Joao Palhinha (Fulham)

Manchester United’s midfield has been outfought and overrun on several occasions already this season – and on Saturday they come face-to-face with Palhinha, the division’s most aggressive ball-winning central midfielder.

The Portuguese star has been in phenomenal form, outlining why Bayern Munich were so keen to sign him during the summer, with a series of all-action performances for Fulham.

His tenacity and tempo-setting will pose a major challenge to Erik ten Hag’s side, especially in the absence of the injured Casemiro.

Leading man

There have been a number of impressive displays from defensive midfielders in 2023/24 so far, but no one has racked up numbers which match Fulham’s main man.

Averaging over six tackles per match (no other player has made more than four), the 28-year-old is ranked No 1 among Premier League midfielders for tackles, tackles won, duels won and possession won inside the defensive third.

He is also in the division's top three for interceptions and ball recoveries.

Palhinha midfield stats
2023/24 Per 90 PL rank
Tackles 6.28 1st
Tackles won 3.07 1st
Duels won 9.09 1st
Poss. won defensive third 4.74 1st
Interceptions 2.23 2nd
Possession won 8.37 3rd

*PL midfielders, min. four starts

Brilliant at Brighton

Palhinha delivered a marvellous individual display in Fulham’s 2-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur, winning six of seven tackles on a night when he protected the back four magnificently under sustained pressure.

He backed that up with an even better showing in last Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Brighton & Hove Albion.

Aside from scoring a fantastic equaliser, Palhinha won five out of 10 tackles, also produced three clearances, five interceptions and 11 ball recoveries, as seen on his defensive chalkboard below:

Palhinha v Brighton chalkboard
Blue: recoveries, clearances and interceptions. Green: tackles won. Red: tackles lost

With a poor run of results adding pressure on a United side that has misfired in recent weeks, the lively Palhinha could be their worst nightmare.

The Cottagers star will not give his opponents a moment’s peace when they have possession, relishing the prospect of unsettling them further.

Player analysis: Sofyan Amrabat (Man Utd)

Palhinha’s form is in contrast with Man Utd’s new defensive midfielder Amrabat, who has struggled to recapture his stirring FIFA World Cup 2022 performances.

The Moroccan has made 3.74 tackles per 90, but in matches where his side has dominated possession, Amrabat has struggled to make a big impact.

See: Ten Hag: I'm a fighter and see this as a challenge

Flanked by midfielders who are not as defensive-minded, and part of a team shape that has been ragged, Amrabat has been stretched too often and asked to cover a lot of ground in recent weeks.

He runs 11.4km per 90 minutes compared with the 11km of Palhinha, who can afford to be a little more efficient with his physical output because of Marco Silva’s set-up.

See: Fulham trip timely for struggling Man Utd

Amrabat is at his best as a single deep-lying anchor, but he has picked up three bookings in five starts in all competitions. This could be another sign of how stretched he has been in the central third. His overall defensive numbers are respectable, but in each category, he is way behind Palhinha.

Palhinha v Amrabat stats comparison
2023/24 Palhinha Amrabat
Tackles/90 6.28 3.74
Tackles won/90 3.07 2.01
Duels won/90 9.09 6.04
Poss. won defensive third/90 4.74 2.59
Interceptions/90 2.23 0.86
Possession won/90 8.37 4.89
Successful long passes/90 4.05 5.18

Casemiro’s injury gives Amrabat another chance to shine this weekend, and after being substituted at half-time in each of his last two starts, he will be determined to make a positive early impression at Craven Cottage.

Amrabat's duel with Palhinha will provide Man Utd's summer signing with a stern test against one of the division’s star performers.

Next: Adrian Clarke on how Son is thriving as a No 9

Also in this series

Part 1: How Douglas Luiz epitomises Villa's strengths in top-four race
Part 2: Nketiah must find some away form if he is to rival Gabriel Jesus

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