Not long ago, it seemed like the 2023-24 season was destined for Cole Palmer to establish himself in the Manchester City first team.
In early August, Palmer came off the bench at Wembley and scored City’s lone goal against Arsenal in the Community Shield. He then made a substitute appearance in the opening Premier League match of the season as City triumphed 3-0 against Burnley.
Additionally, he became just the second player ever to score in both the Community Shield and the UEFA Super Cup in the same season, matching Michael Owen’s feat for Liverpool in 2001. Palmer netted the equalizer against Sevilla in Athens, and City went on to win the Super Cup for the first time in their history.
Fans who had witnessed glimpses of the 21-year-old Palmer’s undeniable talent over the past three years and had seen senior midfielders like Ilkay Gündogan and Riyad Mahrez leave the club during the summer transfer window might have expected Palmer to play a more prominent role in the team.
However, this optimism was short-lived, as manager Pep Guardiola quickly cast doubt on Palmer’s future. Guardiola stated, “The opinion I had when he arrived [back for pre-season] is he wanted to leave, but now I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think a loan is going to happen. He’s going to stay or going to [be sold], but I think a loan is not going to happen.”
Palmer had been clear about his desire for more regular playing time. He had played a pivotal role for England Under-21s as they won the UEFA European Championship that summer, contributing three assists and a goal on their path to victory. Now, more than three years after his first-team debut for City, Palmer sought consistent first-team action.
Guardiola couldn’t provide that assurance, so Palmer made his move. He didn’t play another minute for City and has now completed a transfer that seems to be a common choice for young midfielders these days: he joined Chelsea.
“I’m excited to get started, and it feels great to sign,” Palmer stated on Chelsea’s official website after finalizing the move. “I’ve joined Chelsea because the project here sounds good and because of the platform I will have to try to showcase my talents.”
It’s evident that the England U21 international believes he’ll have a better chance of playing at Chelsea than he did at City. Chelsea is currently heavily investing in youth, with the signing of Palmer pushing their total spending since Todd Boehly acquired the club in May 2022 beyond £1 billion. Moreover, manager Mauricio Pochettino appears willing to provide young players with opportunities. Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to question whether there will truly be more chances for him at Stamford Bridge.
Unlocking Cole Palmer’s Potential at Chelsea
Chelsea and Manchester City are certainly operating on different fronts this season. While City recently won the UEFA Champions League and is considered favourites to repeat that success, Chelsea, despite their focus on youth development, also has a strong desire to win trophies. Manager Mauricio Pochettino has emphasized the need to compete for titles immediately, as he mentioned in a recent interview with The Athletic.
Given this urgency at Stamford Bridge, there may not be much patience for players like Cole Palmer to gradually adapt and improve the team. Palmer is undeniably a highly talented footballer with a promising future, and he could potentially become a Premier League star. However, it’s not entirely clear if he can step in and immediately enhance Chelsea’s first-team performance, especially considering his limited experience in top-flight football.
Palmer has accumulated only 490 minutes of Premier League action in his career, which is equivalent to less than five and a half full matches. He has also played just 184 minutes in the Champions League, slightly more than two full matches. Consequently, his best position on the field remains somewhat uncertain.
Palmer is a technically gifted midfielder who excels in controlling the ball and driving it forward. His dribbling ability is one of his standout attributes, as he effortlessly glides past opponents. Many aspects of his game suggest that he could be a good fit as one of Pep Guardiola’s wide forwards. In fact, he completed more dribbles per 90 minutes in all competitions during the 2022-23 season than any other Manchester City player. However, how he will fit into Chelsea’s setup and whether he can make an immediate impact remain to be seen.
How does Cole Palmer fit into Chelsea’s lineup?
He appears most at ease when positioned on the right side of the attack, where he can cut inside onto his stronger left foot to either deliver curling crosses towards the goal or take shots, as exemplified by his impactful goal in the Community Shield against Arsenal last month.
However, a resurgent Raheem Sterling has consistently occupied the right side of Chelsea’s front three in all three of their Premier League matches under Pochettino so far. Given Sterling’s impressive early-season form and his status as one of the few experienced senior players in the Chelsea squad, it’s unlikely that Palmer will receive significant playing time in that position.
Interestingly, Palmer had more game time for Manchester City on the left side of the attack, accounting for 25% of his playing minutes, as opposed to 21% on the right. Additionally, he spent 22% of his minutes in central midfield and 10% in a number 10 role.
There were instances when Palmer’s presence on the left side appeared to limit his effectiveness since he seemed more inclined to operate around the flanks rather than making direct moves towards the goal. However, akin to the left-footed Phil Foden before him, this was the position favoured by Guardiola for Palmer’s deployment.
In the left-sided attacking position, Chelsea boasts several options, including Mykhailo Mudryk, Noni Madueke, and Carney Chukwuemeka. However, Chukwuemeka is currently sidelined due to injury, and there have been discussions about Pochettino’s reservations regarding Mudryk. Madueke, on the other hand, tends to excel on the right flank.
Enzo Fernández assumed a more advanced role in the recent match against Luton, and forwards Nicolas Jackson and Christopher Nkunku could also step in on the left flank if necessary. Nevertheless, it’s likely that Palmer is viewed as a more favorable choice than any of these players for that particular role. His impressive statistic of 10.7 progressive carries per 90 minutes last season ranks among the best in the Manchester City squad, highlighting his effectiveness when in possession of the ball.
Furthermore, Palmer showcased one of his standout performances for the England U21s this summer when he played in a deeper central midfield role against Germany. While the game had no bearing on qualification, as England had already progressed to the knockout stages, Palmer displayed confidence in demanding the ball from the centre-backs, turning, and driving through midfield. This hinted at his potential to thrive as a number eight. On that particular day, only centre-back Charlie Cresswell (27) made more carries than Palmer (22), who also completed 44 of his 47 passes.
Adapting to Chelsea’s Tactical Demands
Chelsea has made substantial investments in their newly revamped central midfield, which makes it unlikely for Palmer to be considered ready to step in or serve as a backup in that area. Winning back possession isn’t his primary strength, as evidenced by his relatively low figure of 4.2 recoveries per 90 minutes in all competitions during the 2022-23 season, which ranked among the lowest in the Manchester City squad.
However, with Raheem Sterling providing width on the right side of Chelsea’s attacking setup, the left-sided forward for Chelsea may be tasked with moving more centrally and adding an additional presence to what would otherwise be a two-man central midfield in their 3-4-2-1 formation. Chelsea has utilized this formation in all three of their Premier League games so far, particularly against opponents that attempt to overload the central midfield area. An inside-left role could allow Palmer to frequently involve himself in central positions and appears to suit his style more than the high-and-wide left-sided position typically expected of wingers in Guardiola’s system at Manchester City.
There are indeed numerous possibilities for Palmer’s role at Chelsea. He is a versatile player capable of adapting to various positions in the Chelsea team, depending on Pochettino’s preferences. However, there’s a chance that this versatility could work against him, with the possibility of being shifted around to accommodate other players rather than consistently occupying his ideal position.
This move to Chelsea represents a substantial risk for Palmer. He could potentially face stiffer competition for playing time at Chelsea than he did at City, and with no European football on the horizon at Stamford Bridge, there may be fewer minutes available. Nonetheless, Palmer, like every other significant signing at Chelsea this summer, believes in his abilities to make the transition successful. Only time will reveal if this risk was a wise decision for him.