Few teams have enjoyed shopping in Portugal’s Liga NOS as much as Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Since the club’s takeover by Chinese investment company Fosun International in 2016, they have made seven permanent signings from the Portuguese top flight and a handful of loan additions. The vast majority of their new arrivals have adapted perfectly to life in the West Midlands.
Hélder Costa, Raúl Jiménez (both from Benfica) Rúben Neves, Willy Boly (both from FC Porto) and Rui Patrício (Sporting CP) have all excelled at various stages of Wolves’ progression from mid-table Championship side into UEFA Europa League competitors.
They’ve been complemented by a number of Portuguese natives who have joined from other clubs on the continent – most notably Pedro Neto, Bruno Jordão (both from Lazio), João Moutinho, Ivan Cavaleiro, Rúben Vinagre (all from Monaco) and Diogo Jota (Atlético Madrid).
This recruitment strategy isn’t simply down to chance. Fosun International have strong links with Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes, who has played a significant role in the influx of his countrymen to the Premier League. But whatever the reason, there’s little doubt it has worked for Wolves. They are currently in sixth place and could be just two points off a UEFA Champions League spot if Manchester City’s ban from European competition is upheld.
Therefore, it's no surprise the club wish to continue in the same vein. So few eyebrows will have been raised at the news Wanderers have been linked with João Palhinha – the Sporting CP midfielder currently on loan at Braga.
In an era where no-one knows how the post-coronavirus transfer market is going to evolve, this is one story which feels like it has legs. Palhinha fits the profile of a typical Wolves signing, isn’t currently involved at his parent club and will reportedly be available at a knockdown price as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The midfielder even came up against Nuno Espírito Santo’s side twice in the UEFA Europa League this season. So it’s not unrealistic to suspect he is on the manager’s radar.
A reported fee of less than the 24-year-old’s £18million buyout clause feels like a reasonable asking price for a player who has yet to make an impact at Sporting but has enjoyed an eye-catching campaign with Braga. The Portuguese Under-20 international has helped the Arsenalistas to third place in Liga NOS, four points above his parent club.
Palhinha is an absolute colossus in the centre of the park. An out-and-out defensive midfielder, he has won more duels than every other player in Portugal’s top tier this season (11.31 per 90) and been a rock-solid presence in the heart of Braga’s engine room.
Only four players in Liga NOS have attempted more tackles than the Lisbon-born anchorman (3.79 per 90), while he’s inside the division’s top five when it comes to tackles won (2.47 per 90). Palhinha has also won possession back in the middle third of the pitch an average of 4.27 times per 90, which isn’t too shabby either.
At 6ft 3in tall, his imposing stature makes him just as dominant in the air too. The midfielder has won an average of 4.21 aerial duels per 90, which puts him 11th in the league. When you consider that number is better than most centre-backs this season, it’s a very impressive record.
While the offensive side of Palhinha’s game doesn’t quite match up to his defensive acumen, it is worth noting the Sporting academy graduate’s long-range distribution – 71 per cent of his long passes this season have found their intended target, reflecting an ability to use the ball effectively as well as simply winning back possession.
Wolves’ first XI is one of the Premier League’s best. But their squad is wafer-thin. Santo may not initially be looking to replace Neves, Moutinho or Leander Dendoncker as his starting central midfield options. However, the club will certainly be in the market for players who can add depth and challenge for a place in the starting line-up.
Palhinha would surely fit the bill perfectly. A tough-tackling powerhouse available for a modest price, he would be an excellent addition to Wolves’ armoury. Unwanted at Sporting but starring for Braga, the Portuguese midfielder has the potential to be one of this summer’s best bargain buys.