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Five central midfielders to back up Joao Palhinha 

Written by Will Gardner on 18th January 2023

Will Gardner believes back-up for our Portuguese enforcer is a must this month, and finds some options to mull over.  

Our need for depth in all positions has come to the fore once again in recent weeks. With Mitro sitting up in the Cottage for the West London Derby last Thursday and with Kurzawa filling in for the suspended Robinson on Sunday it’s become clear that our tried and tested starting XI needs to be slightly bigger than it currently is.

While what we are seeing on the pitch is incredible, and the standout performances from Reed and Palhinha in the centre of the pitch have really shone through, I just can’t shake the fact that there is no one behind them to fill in, in case of suspension or injury. 

TC has obviously been coming on for Reed recently, but for 90 mins the pair are worlds apart in what they offer the team. While Palhinha seems completely irreplaceable, and some of his tackles against Newcastle were immense, we don’t need to remind ourselves about what happened the last time he was suspended.

Our focus, according to rumours, this transfer window has been about finding a right-back, but I think finding a back-up for Palhinha is more pressing. We can’t expect him to play 90 minutes doing the job he does week in week out, especially with the congested fixtures we have towards the end of the season. We’ll risk injury or suspension and then be left in the lurch like we were in October. So, I had a look around and pulled together some suggestions or hopes that we could look to bring in to fill in as cover for Joao.

Much like the search for Mitro back-up, the issue is: who wants to come in as second choice? In that sense Vinicius was almost a perfect signing in the summer. While Carlos looked shaky at the beginning, with more minutes under his belt he’s looked more and more comfortable leading the line. 

In one sense, Chalobah is a great back up to Palhinha, because from the outside looking in, he looks comfortable with the fact minutes will be limited and knows his role within the squad. The only problem is that he lacks the quality needed for this level. And while that may change if he gets more minutes, can trust him between now and the end of the season – and in fact further? 

When looking at options I had to think about someone who would be comfortable being a back-up. I also had a think about what they would cost as players cost an arm and a leg in January at the best of times. Finally, while we all want quality, we already have the best player in the position, so finding a replacement we could maybe look further down the list then Ngolo Kante and find some hidden gems. 

Pablo Maia

One player who we were linked with towards the start of the window but that now seems to have dropped off is Sao Paulo’s promising defensive midfielder Pablo Maia. At only 21 years old, Maia is a hot prospect and has drawn the interest from a number of clubs aside from us, including West Ham and Spurs.

Typically seen marshalling in front of the defence, Maia certainly has the defensive and combative capabilities to fill in for Palhinha, as he is one of the top performing players in the Brazillian league in terms of blocks and aerial duels won. Which is surprising as he sits at 1.78m, and in comparison, Palhinha is 1.90m (but you knew that already). Like Joao, Maia seems to enjoy the ugly side of the game, the one that seemed to fall out of the limelight prior to Kante’s emergence at Leicester. 

Obviously a number of teams are vying for Pablos signature this month and he won’t be short of offers, but hopefully Marco can work his magic and sell him the Brazillian dream that seems to be building in West London.

Gustavo Hamer

Another player who we have been linked with in the past is Coventry City’s Hamer, a Brazilian-born, Netherlands citizen who isn’t one to pull out of a tackle. While he may not be an out-and-out defensive midfielder and in fact is probably deemed more an attacking prospect, his defensive numbers don’t lie and are some of the best in the Championship with 2.87 tackles per 90, as well as 1.44 interceptions and 1.49 blocks per 90. The key difference that Hamer has to other players of his position is that he likes to progress the ball forward and is in the top 2% of progressive passes per 90.

He’s got a 18 months left on his contract and he’s been Coventry’s best player this season. As a team who have struggled financially in the past, and due to a points deduction aren’t competing for promotion this season, this may be the time to cash in on Hamer as his stock is currently at his highest.

He’s currently one of the main men at Coventry and may not be overly keen to see his minutes drastically reduced to become second choice. However, the lure of the Premier League, of London, and of the coaching of Marco Silva may be enough to sway him to make the trip down from the Midlands, and fight for a spot in the team. What excites me about Hamer is that he could seemingly also fill in for Reed as well, due to his more attacking qualities.

Nemanja Matic

Bear with me. He may be 34, and he may have played for the blue lot down the road, but we’ve seen that work well for us so far this season. Matic’s played at the top level for a number of years, currently plying his trade for Roma and has six months left on his contract. The rumours are that he still lives in West London, like Willian, and the chance to come play for a club so close to home may be the perfect scenario for him and us.

He’s an experienced player who could help in the dressing room or on the pitch when things aren’t going our way, like we saw against Newcastle. He reads the game like nobody else and is in the top 10% of interceptions by midfielders in the top five leagues. He’s cool, calm and collected and has the expertise to see out games whilst shepherding in front of the back four.

Mateus Uribe

Another older head, but only at 31, Uribe is coming to the end of his contract with Porto and could be the perfect cover for Joao. A midfielder, who represents Colombia on the international stage, he appears to be another player who never shies away from his defensive duties. With 2.9 tackles a game, as well as 1.84 interceptions and 2.17 aerial duels won, he’s a beast in the middle of the park and can be relied on to make his presence known.

We’ve seen the quality coming over from the Portuguese league in the past season, so we know he’ll be up to the standard to compete. Never mind the fact he’s appeared five times in the Champions League this season and even chipped in with a goal. He also has strong attacking attributes with several progressive passes and an 84% pass completion rate.

With six months left on his contract, he may be available at a fraction of his value and could prove to be a real coup for the club.

Ben Sheaf

Finally, another option could be another Coventry City player and former Arsenal U21, Ben Sheaf. Only second behind Hamer in terms of ratings for Coventry this season, Sheaf has proved to be another tough tackling midfielder. (Coventry need to learn to retain the ball it seems.)

He has the most tackles per 90 out of any of the other options on this list, at 3.01, and he has also proved his quality at reading the game and intercepting several passes at 1.70 interceptions a game.

At 24 years old with 18 months left on his contract, Sheaf may not be excited to move to potentially sit on the bench, but similarly to Hamer with the lure of the Premier League and moving back to London, he could be tempted to swap his minutes for a chance in the best league in the world.

As you can see Palhinha’s defensive numbers are leagues ahead of anyone else are we are so lucky to have him. We’ve got to admire the work of Marco and his scouting department and yes even Tony Khan that we managed to get him down the cottage. But if you had to find a back-up for the main man, who would be your choice? One of these five or someone else entirely?

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