Liverpool’s search for a third midfield addition continues.
The Reds spent weeks negotiating with Southampton over a possible deal for Romeo Lavia but felt the valuation placed on the 19-year-old was ultimately too high, so walked away. They quickly pivoted their interest to Moises Caicedo and agreed a British record fee for the midfielder only for the 21-year-old to opt for a move to Chelsea.
So now, with the season underway and the transfer window edging to its close, Jurgen Klopp finds himself without a defensive midfielder and the pool of options is shrinking by the day. The important thing though is that there are still options out there.
According to multiple reports, the Reds are interested in Premier League duo Cheick Doucoure and Joao Palhinha. Others have also been mentioned but experience in the English top-flight will play a part in decision-making at this point of the window. If players are used to the rigours of the Premier League, their adaption should, in theory, be much easier. And the Reds need someone to come in and immediately impact things.
So, how do Doucoure and Palhinha compare and which of the two would be better suited to a move to Anfield?
Signed by Crystal Palace from Lens last summer in a deal worth £18million. Patrick Vieira wasted no time and stuck the midfielder into his starting XI. Even after the Frenchman’s departure, the 23-year-old remained in the team, starting under Roy Hodgson. He appeared in 34 of Palace’s 38 Premier League games and racked up close to 2,800 minutes.
Not only did Doucoure adapt to a new league, but he also adapted to a completely different system. While in France, the 5ft11 midfielder was a lot more progressive in his play.
For example, in his final season in Ligue 1, he was averaging 60 passes per 90 with a success rate of 87%, per FBref. He was also racking up impressive progressive passing distance numbers, averaging 248 yards per 90. For context here, his average for Palace was just 173 yards and he was averaging just 40 passes per 90. His Expected Goals assisted was almost double what it was last season (0.11 in Ligue 1, 0.06 in the Premier League).
Doucoure was also averaging 2.93 shot-creating actions for Lens while also attempting more take-ons on a per 90 basis. He also had a take-on success rate of over 70%.
For a little more insight here, Fabinho was fairly busy defensively but he was also heavily involved - attempting over 60 passes per 90 and having a pass success rate of over 88%.
So, you have a midfielder who doesn’t shirk his defensive responsibilities but he’s also extremely progressive, both with his passing and with his ball-carrying. Doucoure was also a key part in Seko Fofana’s emergence too, proving himself to be a facilitator for other midfielders. This is what Liverpool are after, aren’t they? They need someone who can do the dirty work so that Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai are freed up offensively.
Judging him solely on his performances for Crystal Palace isn’t necessarily fair. He is just doing what is needed for their system to function. The Eagles didn’t really see a lot of the ball, averaging just 46% possession last season per FBref. They seemed to flip-flop with their shape, alternating between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Their formation didn’t really dictate their style though - they wanted to sit a little deeper and play on the break so it makes sense for their midfielders to be fairly active without the ball while having limited numbers in possession. After all, they were tasked with being fairly direct.
Take that into account but also factor in his showing in Lens to build a much fairer picture of Doucoure.
The same could be said for the Fulham man too.
Obviously, Palhinha was brilliant last season and that is why he’s being linked with big-money moves away. FBref highlights just how effective he is at disrupting play, putting him in the 99th percentile for tackles, the 88th percentile for clearances and the 99th percentile for aerial duels won.
However, his on-ball numbers were much better in Portugal and he was averaging 50 passes per 90 compared to the 36 he managed at Fulham. He also had a pass success rate of 87% with Sporting in his final season there, up on the 83% he averaged with the Premier League side.
He wasn’t truly able to show off his ability in possession following the move to England. The 28-year-old had to adapt to a system playing for a team that wasn’t one of the dominant ones and therefore his numbers dropped off. It made it difficult for people to appreciate what he was capable of doing.
For Liverpool, though, he would have to combine the two parts of his game. Without the ball, he would have to be as dominant as he was at Fulham. With the ball, he would need to be more like the Sporting version.
Next up, we need to address his age.
The fact the 6ft3 midfielder is 28 is a big topic of debate. The Reds rarely part with big money to bring in players over 26.
But not all 28-year-olds are the same.
Since the 2018/19 campaign, Palhinha has racked up 11,828 minutes across three clubs. For a bit of context here, the 2022/23 season with Fulham was the first time he had managed over 3,000 minutes in a single season. Across the last five years, Palhinha has averaged roughly 2,365 minutes per season in the league. Average that out over 90-minute matches and it is the equivalent of 26.
The Portugal international has been a 26-game per-season guy for five campaigns.
Fabinho is 29. If we look at his numbers over the past five years, we get a different picture. The Brazilian midfielder has amassed over 15,500 minutes, averaging close to 3,200 minutes per season and roughly 35 90s per campaign.
Over a single season, a difference of 900 minutes isn’t going to make that much of a difference, is it? But to have done that for five successive campaigns? That is a lot of extra minutes in those legs.
With this in mind, I wouldn’t write off Palhinha as a possible target based on age alone. He’s only just turned 28 and compared to other players, his legs are much fresher.
His dislocated shoulder, however, could make a move problematic as Marco Silva is yet to say when his compatriot is expected to return. If he’s out for a while, he’s of no use to Liverpool and signing an injured player for big money is a recipe for disaster.
If they’re both going for similar amounts, it makes more sense to bring in Doucoure even though Palhinha has the physical edge.