When Fabrizio Romano mentioned a ‘mystery attacker’ was heading to Chelsea this summer, many fans were at a loss. The Blues don’t tend to do their business in private. The mystery deepened further when it was revealed that 21-year-old Cole Palmer, a player with just a handful of senior appearances to his name, was the man to fill Chelsea’s creative void. And yet, just three months after leaving Manchester for West London in a £40 million deadline day move, no one is under any allusions as to how good Palmer can be.
A product of Manchester City’s famed academy, Palmer made his first team debut as a fresh-faced 18-year-old away to Burnley in the Carabao Cup. A year later he’d play the Clarets again before netting a hat-trick for City’s U-23s just a few hours apart. Pep Guardiola quickly identified Palmer’s ‘special quality in front of the box.’
The Englishman would go on to notch goals in the Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup, Community Shield, and the Super Cup in sky blue. ‘Prem soon come,’ Palmer quipped after opening his account for City in the FA Cup. But goals in English football’s premier competition would elude the youngster until this season.
Despite his age, Palmer is bringing a much-needed maturity to Chelsea’s squad. Three from three from the penalty spot going into the match against Manchester City singled out the deadline-day acquisition as someone willing to take responsibility in a squad of players trying to find themselves on and off the pitch. Palmer is revelling in his starring role and has sights firmly fixed on making his mark on the international stage.
Having won the U21 European Championship in the summer, Palmer is looking to break into Gareth Southgate’s plans ahead of Euro 2024. England have a plethora of attacking options, but James Maddison’s injury could potentially open the door for Palmer, who made his international debut on November 17, coming off the bench for the final half-hour of their 2-0 win against Malta before making a brief cameo in England’s final Euro qualifier, a 1-1 draw at North Macedonia.
It’s widely remarked that despite sitting 10th in the league, Chelsea are progressing under Mauricio Pochettino. A ball-dominant side – only Manchester City average more possession per90, capable of opening up any defence. Palmer’s ability to pass through the lines – he ranks fourth and sixth, respectively, for through balls and passes into the penalty area, according to FBref, allows Chelsea to quickly move the ball into shooting positions.
With an average age of 23.7, this is a Chelsea squad with few leaders and composure in high-pressure situations at times eludes them. But the performances of Palmer, in particular, suggest, given time, they’ll begin to produce the results their displays have warranted.
Having grabbed a goal and an assist in a 4-1 win to hand Tottenham their first defeat of the season under Ange Postecoglou, Palmer scored a last-second penalty as Chelsea snatched a 4-4 draw against City. Chelsea sought to disrupt City’s passing play, pressing high and moving the ball quickly into the penalty area, and Palmer’s high-energy style was crucial both in and out of possession – his assist against Blackburn Rovers in the last round of the Carabao Cup owed everything to his awareness off the ball.
Palmer made way for for Levi Colwill in the 75th minute of their match against Newcastle after Reece James received his marching orders, with Anthony Gordon scoring shortly after to secure a 4-1 win at St. James’ Park for the Magpies. He was relegated to the bench for the following match for Mykhailo Mudryk, and he came on for the final half-hour after Enzo Fernandez made it 3-1, replacing Raheem Sterling. Joao Pedro scored in extra time to serve up a nervy finale, but Chelsea nevertheless held onto a 3-2 win against Brighton at Stamford Bridge.
His languid frame and close control have seen those inside Chelsea claim Palmer is everything they thought Kai Havertz to be when the German arrived from Bayer Leverkusen in 2020. With effortless efficiency, Palmer is providing the platform for those ahead of him to tap into their natural attacking instincts. Risk-averse football became a staple of Chelsea’s play last season. But with Palmer conducting from between the lines, Chelsea’s frontline is slowly beginning to play with more freedom.
Chelsea are a work in progress, as evidenced by their 10th-place position in the league, but they’ve nevertheless beaten Tottenham and taken points off of Liverpool, Arsenal, and City, and they’ll be looking to continue their impressive record against the Big Six with a trip to Old Trafford on Wednesday. Success isn’t linear, but in Palmer, they have a model of consistency through which the rest of the team can feed off. The Pochettino project may just have found its poster boy.
By: Sam Tabuteau / @TabuteauS
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Visionhaus / Getty Images