Ever since Harry Kane decided a golfing trip with Gary Neville was a fitting moment to break the hearts of Tottenham Hotspur supporters the world over, plenty of column inches have been dedicated to asking a question with no obvious answer. How on earth do Spurs go about replacing the irreplaceable?
However, this wouldn’t be the first time the London giants have had to face up to the unenviable task of preparing for life without a player who has few equals in the Premier League and beyond.
It has been more than two years since Moussa Dembele swapped north London for China, joining Beijing Guoan for a cool £11 million (Guardian).
Since then, Spurs have gone from Premier League and Champions League challengers to the depths of the UEFA Conference League, crashing into the ground at breakneck speed after reaching heights they never thought they’d reach.
Of course, Dembele’s exit isn’t the only factor behind Tottenham’s rapid decline.
A lack of effective signings, the slide in form of Dele Alli and Eric Dier, plus the ill-fated Jose Mourinho experiment have all contributed.
But, in the 29 months since Dembele’s departure, Tottenham haven’t come close to finding a midfielder capable of doing what only he could do.
Could Palhinha finally fill the Dembele-shaped void at Tottenham?
Jack of all trades, master of most. If you take Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg’s discipline, Moussa Sissoko’s energy and Tanguy Ndombele’s technique, only then would you come close to building a player as devastatingly efficient and beautifully elegant as Dembele at his peak.
“I always say ‘Moussa, in my book, you will be one of my genius players that I have been lucky to meet’, with (Diego) Maradona, Ronaldinho, (Jay Jay) Okocha and (Ivan) De La Pena,” former manager Mauricio Pochettino told the Independent in 2017.
So while it may be unfair to compare Joao Palhinha with one of the greatest midfielders to pull on that famous white shirt since the turn of the century, there are certainly similarities between the two men.
Palhinha may be renowned in Portugal for his ball-winning abilities – he was the rock at the heart of a Sporting side that won the Primeira Liga for the first time in 20 years, averaging 3.3 tackles per game – but there’s more to his game than that.
Palhinha is as much a dictator as he is a destroyer – like Dembele in his pristine pomp.
Just look at the way the 6ft 3in powerhouse dispossessed first Jules Kounde then N’Golo Kante with perfectly timed sliding tackles before executing a beautiful one-two and nutmegging Paul Pogba for good measure during Portugal’s 2-2 Euro 2020 draw with France this week.
Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton and Leicester City have all been linked with Palhinha in recent weeks, with Record now throwing Tottenham’s name into the ring for the £30 million maestro.
So while Tottenham may be on a hiding to nothing in their fruitless pursuit of Harry Kane 2.0, a man capable of emulating Dembele’s influence in the centre of the park may be within their grasp at last.