If you’ve spent any time on social media over the past few days you’ve probably seen a certain picture. It’s of two young footballers battling for the ball whilst another watching on further back on the pitch.
The three players are Mason Mount, Reece James and Conor Gallagher while playing for the Chelsea youth system and there is a real excitement amongst Blues fans that they will soon be doing so again for the senior team.
There are currently just three Premier League players under the age of 23 with eight or more goal contributions this season and yes, you’ve guessed it, they are Mount, James and Gallagher.
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The performances of the latter have been remarkable. It’s not often a young player looks so comfortable in the Premier League and it’s a great example of the benefits of a loan move when it’s the right fit. Gallagher has thrived under Patrick Vieira and has relished being given so much responsibility in the heart of the midfield.
This has of course given rise to plenty of Chelsea fans hoping that Gallagher will be recalled in the January window. However Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel has already said that whilst he loves Gallagher as a player it’s important to keep him comfortable in his situation.
“It is important for him to be happy where he is and not change things. It is important to be calm,” Tuchel said recently.
“It is too early to talk about recalling him in public before we talk with Conor himself and what his goals are. This will happen in the summer, as we all agreed to the decision that we wanted to send him to Palace.”
Conor Gallagher of Crystal Palace celebrates
Image credit: Getty Images
“I loved him from day one,” Tuchel added when asked about the midfielder. “As a team-mate, I would have loved to play with him. It is a pleasure to know him, I am super happy that it has worked out so well. He needs to keep his feet on the ground.”
In this modern era of instant reactions and insane demands on young players it can be very easy for fans and clubs to forget just how delicate the development of players can be. The way Real Madrid handled Martin Odegaard’s loan at Real Sociedad is a great example and Chelsea themselves hardly have the best track record when it comes to making the right decisions regarding their young players and their loan moves. Bringing back Gallagher in January would be a real risk, one that really isn’t worth taking.
Plus there’s something to be said for the impact he is having at Palace. They are currently 12th, eight points above the drop zone and six points behind Tottenham Hotspur in seventh. How much closer to 18th-placed Burnley would they be without Gallagher? This is the first season of the Vieira era and there has been a pretty big overhaul, having a player like Gallagher has proven to be an unexpected boon in a transitional season. Palace will be working on the assumption that they have until the summer to find a player to replace Gallagher, drastically shortening that time-line is not fair to them.
Crystal Palace’s English midfielder Conor Gallagher (R) celebrates scoring his team’s first goal with Crystal Palace’s English defender Tyrick Mitchell (L) and Crystal Palace’s French striker Odsonne Edouard during the English Premier League football game
Image credit: Getty Images
So where will Gallagher play when he comes back to Chelsea next summer? Of course a lot can change between now and then but the most obvious location would be as one of the two central midfielders in Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 formation. That is where he plays for Palace and that is where he seems to be the most comfortable, even if it might prove to be a bit of an adjustment given Viera’s Palace tend to play with three central midfielders rather than two.
But despite playing just a midfield duo Tuchel has a clear strategy that encourages one or even both of the pair to push forward and support the attack. This might be the tiny detail that gives Gallagher an edge over his rivals. When Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante or Ruben Loftus-Cheek push forward there can be a touch of hesitancy in the final third. It can sometimes lead to Chelsea’s attacks slowing down rather than swiftly cutting through the opposition defence. That can give Chelsea control in midfield, but not always penetration. That’s where Gallagher comes in.
He’s probably not got the same level of penetrative deep passing as Jorginho or Kovacic for example, but his willingness to drive with the ball (as well as his obvious keen eye for a goal) might offer a little something different. So far this season in 1318 Premier League minutes Gallagher has six goals and three assists. Contrastingly in 2,918 minutes the aforementioned quartet has seven goals and eight assists, hardly the sort of difference you’d want given the relative imbalance, particularly given Jorginho is the Chelsea penalty-taker.
The scary thing about Gallagher is how good he can be. He’s only 21 yet he looks like one of the most complete midfielders in the Premier League. Much like Mount or James it’s a question of when, not if, you find space for a player like that. Realistically someone like Kovacic or Loftus-Cheek need to be worried.
The only real question for Tuchel is going to be what sort of player does he want Gallagher to be? Does he want him to be a slightly more attacking version of N’Golo Kante? A more energetic Jorginho? Or some kind of terrifying do-it-all hybrid? Chelsea fans will happily tell anyone who will listen how special Michael Essien was before injuries took him to pieces, Gallagher can get to that level, or even higher.
That’s what makes him special. Not only are player comparisons lazy but they’re also not accurate, such is the uniqueness of Gallagher. As Vieira said after the game at the weekend, “What is really extraordinary is that we are talking about the 90th minute of the game. He [Gallagher] has been running all around the field. To find the energy to score that goal it takes a lot of quality.”
So let’s leave Gallagher where he is, let him see what he can do for Palace this season and let him continue to learn under one of the best midfielders to ever grace the Premier League. Then let’s see what will happen when he starts studying under one of the game’s great tactical minds and plays alongside players in one of the best teams in Europe.
Sit back and enjoy the ride because at the rate we’re going at, Gallagher is going to be a player you tell your grandkids about.
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