Joao Palhinha, the late bloomer finally getting his dream Bayern Munich move

The thing about Joao Palhinha is he does not compromise his style for anyone. What you see on a matchday is what his team-mates have to put up with in every training session. Slide-tackle after slide-tackle, duel after duel. Nobody, friend or foe, is spared.

“I have been ‘baptised’ 100 times by his tackles,” says former team-mate Francisco Geraldes, who was also a class-mate of Palhinha’s at school. “I even got mad sometimes! He’s professional. When he’s training, he trains really hard. So it doesn’t matter if I’m friends or not with him, he just comes behind you and… tackle, tackle, tackle!”

For Palhinha, tackling is his lifeblood.

In the Premier League with Fulham, the now 29-year-old established himself as the game’s most prolific and efficient ball-recovery artist. For two seasons running, he has made more tackles than anyone else in Europe’s top-five leagues (the Premier League plus Spain’s La Liga, the German Bundesliga, Serie A in Italy and France’s Ligue 1).

Last week, as if to underline that point on the international stage, he made seven tackles and won 12 out of 12 duels for Portugal in their round-of-16 tie against Slovenia at the European Championship — before half-time.

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Joao Palhinha was in top tackling form against Slovenia (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via Getty Images)

This is why Bayern Munich have returned to the table and completed a €56million (£47.4m, $60.6m) deal, of which €5m is linked to incentive-based add-ons, after missing out on him on deadline day last summer.

In short, Bayern are securing a world-class tackler. Just ask those who have played with him.

“Joao Palhinha is the best tackler I’ve ever seen,” says Fulham right-back Kenny Tete, himself no stranger to the art of one-on-one combat. “I’m serious. His timing is amazing. Especially his standing tackle. He is an unbelievable player.”

Palhinha the person is perhaps not what you would expect from watching Palhinha the player. Off the pitch, he is no raging bull. He is reserved, a ‘sensible’ character who got teased by his team-mates at Fulham for his seriousness.

Above all, the word ‘professional’ defines him, and that has underpinned his football journey to date.

“Palhinha was always a very focused guy, very professional, very humble on the team,” recalls Geraldes. “He’s the type of guy you want to be a team-mate, a friend. He doesn’t create any problems in the dressing room. He’s very low-key. He never pays for lunches, though! We have a saying in Portugal about when someone has a crocodile in his pocket. If he goes on a trip with Fulham and they stop at the gas station and Willian asks him for an ice cream, he’s not gonna pay, for sure!”

Geraldes, who is only a few months older than Palhinha, grew up with the new Bayern recruit in Alvalade, a district in central Lisbon. They met when they were 10 years old and attended the same school.

“It was a very calm area with a lot of gardens, very multicultural,” Geraldes says. “Joao also benefited from his family support, because they are just awesome, a lovely, lovely family. You can never dissociate the player that Joao is from his family, and their support.”

Geraldes remembers Palhinha as not exceptional academically but talented at football. In the playground, Palhinha was at first a striker, not a midfielder. “We played a lot together in school, that’s how we first met,” he says. “He was already tall and strong.”

An attacking midfielder who left Estoril, a top-flight club from the western outskirts of Lisbon, last summer to play in the United Arab Emirates and is now with Johor Darul Ta’zim in Malaysia, Geraldes signed for Sporting Lisbon at the age of seven, but his friend would not join them until a lot later, aged 16.

Palhinha was, and continued to be, a late bloomer.

“He was with me in 2011,” recalls Luis Nunes, Palhinha’s former youth-team coach at Sacavenense. Palhinha played for the club, based in Sacavem, to the east of Lisbon, between 2009 and 2012. “It coincided with his best season at the club. It was when he caught the eye of Benfica and Sporting. He was 16 at the time.

“We saw him as someone who could control a midfield. You see how tall he is today (190cm — almost 6ft 3in)? He was already that big as a teenager. He was tall, quick and aggressive. These were the things that made the big clubs start to look at him. He has improved a lot. In technical and tactical terms, the evolution has been huge.”

Palhinha’s journey to the top has been far from linear.

As mentioned above, he joined Sporting late, after helping Sacavanense finish second in the local youth league. At Sporting too, he would have to wait for his opportunities. He went on four loans, to Moreirense, to Belenenses, and for back-to-back years at Braga, before he finally gained a foothold in his parent club’s first team at the age of 25. Within a year, he had won the league title and picked up his first international cap, and then in summer 2022, aged 27, he moved to the Premier League.

“Certain players mature later, take longer to develop,” says Jose Joao, youth-team coach at Sporting. “He was at Braga and evolved, playing more minutes and building consistency. When he returned, he was on a different level.”

Those who have followed Palhinha’s career speak of how he always had his tackling prowess but it was his work on the ball that evolved. Manuel Fernandes, who passed away last month at age 73, spoke to The Athletic last year about Palhinha’s development. Fernandes, who played 31 times for Portugal having spent much of his playing career at Sporting, went on to become the club’s scouting coordinator.

“I had more contact with Palhinha when he was an under-19,” Fernandes said. “I saw him play a lot of times and I knew the potential he had. Technically, he has evolved a lot. And when I say technique, it’s not juggling with the ball. When I say technique, it’s in terms of his position, in terms of quick thinking. And he fouls a lot less than he used to, which is normal. He’s even good in the air.

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Palhinha won the Portuguese title with Sporting in 2020-21 (Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“Characteristics are born with you. Those qualities he has already came with him. He has a great mentality, because when he went out on loan he knew one day he would come back and improve at Sporting.”

Braga was Palhinha’s staging post. Across his lengthy spell there on loan, from summer 2018 to summer 2020, he began to make an impression. “Those seasons he spent here were really good for him,” says Rui Fonte, a team-mate in that second season at Braga. “Sometimes, players need to take their time to improve. I think that was his case. He just took his time to grow, to make mistakes, to really play and to learn from older players or different players, circumstances. He was going club by club and playing a lot more. When he came to Braga he really exploded and went back to Sporting and kept on improving.”

Ruben Amorim was promoted from reserves coach to manage Braga’s first team in December 2019, midway through Palhinha’s second season at the club, but he would only stay for 10 weeks before being poached by Sporting in the March. Upon returning to the capital club himself that summer, Palhinha initially trained on his own as he was expecting to leave, with interest from CSKA Moscow in Russia and Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr. Instead, Amorim put him centre-stage, placing him at the base of his midfield in a 3-4-3 system, and ultimately becoming a key part of Sporting’s first league title for 19 years.

“Physically, (Palhinha’s) a beast,” says Fonte. “He added quality of his passing and his vision. Most of the time, he keeps it simple and that helps. He knows where he is strong and where he is not so strong. His range on the pitch was his main characteristic that I saw. He would help us everywhere on the pitch.”

After another good season at Sporting, Fulham’s Portuguese head coach Marco Silva caught wind of Palhinha’s possible move to fellow Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers in summer 2022 and persuaded his employers to jump the queue. Silva had briefly crossed paths with Palhinha, then a 19-year-old in the B team, when he was Sporting’s head coach for the 2014-15 season.

In the end, Fulham were the only club to put an offer on the table. Today, their deal worth €20million seems an impressive bargain — and even more remarkable that there were no rival suitors.

“I’m not surprised he settled so quickly,” says Tobias Figueiredo, a defender who played with Palhinha for Sporting’s under-17s and later spent six years in England with Nottingham Forest and Hull City. “The style of football here is ideal for him. It’s very physical and in physical terms, he is a monster.”

Fulham were not a complete unknown to Palhinha. As a youngster, he was offered a trial for a place in the west London club’s academy. But two years ago, they had only just secured promotion back to the Premier League, so he would need some persuading. Silva’s calls were crucial, but he was not the only one he spoke to. Palhinha picked up the phone to his old team-mate, Fonte, who was with Fulham between 2017 and 2019. “I just told him the truth and my experience, that it was a great club, with immense potential to be more than they were, especially under Marco Silva’s management,” says Fonte. “It was the perfect fit for him.”

So it would prove.

Silva signed Palhinha to be his No 6, replacing a more creative player in Jean Michael Seri. Palhinha would be a revelation, with a series of eye-catching performances. “If you lose the ball, he smells blood,” said Fulham captain Tom Cairney. “He’s probably one of the best I’ve ever seen off the ball, in terms of recovering and trying to win back the ball. He doesn’t just put pressure on (opponents), he goes back to win the ball and does the tackle. It’s amazing to watch sometimes.”

Palhinha thrived in a division with a little more leniency regarding physical play than the Primeira Liga back home, and a deep-seated respect for a thunderous challenge. “In Portugal, he had to learn the hard way,” says Fonte. “At the beginning, he would get quite a few yellow cards. But he’s an intelligent player. A smart one. He started to time and choose when to tackle. In England, it’s a little bit aggressive — in a good way. He was in a league where he’s more comfortable, because the referees allow the game to flow.”

Immediately, he built up a rapport with the Fulham supporters.

In only his third game for his new club, he scored against local rivals Brentford. But it was his celebration for the winner that August day, scored by Aleksandar Mitrovic in stoppage time, that caught the eye. He was filmed celebrating with the home fans on his own, smashing the advertising boards surrounding the pitch furiously. After his second Fulham goal, against Forest a few weeks later, he jumped the hoardings to celebrate with the supporters in the City Ground’s away end.

“I try to take their support and put it on the pitch,” Palhinha said. “That’s my attitude. Sometimes, when the fans sing my name, it’s like petrol for me.”

Fulham survived in the Premier League for the first time in a decade, having been relegated at the end of their previous two years in the top flight, and ended up finishing 10th. Palhinha’s importance to the team was underlined by how, in the three league games of their 38 that he missed, they lost the lot by an aggregate score of 10 goals to three.

Interest in Palhinha was no surprise but it would materialise too late in the 2023 summer window to winkle him out of Craven Cottage. A deal was agreed, with Bayern, for around €65million but without a replacement lined up, the move collapsed on deadline day. It meant Palhinha, who had travelled to Munich and been photographed with a Bayern shirt in his hand in anticipation of signing for them, had to return to England. “It was probably one of the toughest days of his life,” said Silva.

But Palhinha put the situation behind him. He even bettered his Europe-leading 2022-23 tackling numbers, making 152 in the Premier League, up from 148 in his debut season. “He is a top player, top professional, top guy — since the minute he joined the club,” Silva said later. “He dreams of improving his career. What happened with Joao (and the failed transfer) can happen to any player. But I never had any doubt about his commitment.”

Palhinha signed a new contract at Fulham two weeks after the window closed, a deal that was already on the table before Bayern’s overtures. It gave him a deserved pay rise. Sources with knowledge of the deal at the time, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not feel it precluded an exit should another big offer materialise. Indeed, despite a change in head coach from Thomas Tuchel to Vincent Kompany, Bayern did rekindle their interest, and after three bids, struck a new agreement with Fulham.

For the German club, Palhinha is seen as the antidote to a lack of midfield balance — they have never truly replaced Javi Martinez, who left three years ago. Palhinha is a different profile to anyone else in their squad, a combative midfielder who will provide a layer of protection to a defence which has struggled in recent times. In the process, he will become Bayern’s fourth-most expensive signing ever.

Fulham now face a difficult challenge trying to replace him. Those at Craven Cottage were well aware the player they had in their No 6 role was truly unique. That is why he now has the chance to showcase his ability with one of world football’s elite clubs. “There aren’t many players who can do what Palhinha does,” says Nunes.

He may have had to wait a year for it, and until he turned 29 earlier this week, but Palhinha, a life-long late bloomer, can finally take his biggest step of all.

Additional reporting: Jack Lang

(Top photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

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