Not very long ago at all, it felt like 2023-24 was the season for Cole Palmer to make his mark on the Manchester City first team.

In early August, Palmer came off the bench at Wembley to score City’s only goal against Arsenal in the Community Shield. He then appeared as a substitute in the opening Premier League game of the season as City won 3-0 at Burnley, before becoming only the second player ever to score in both the Community (or Charity) Shield and the UEFA Super Cup in the same season (after Michael Owen for Liverpool in 2001), netting the equaliser against Sevilla in Athens. City went on to win on penalties, securing the Super Cup for the first time in their history.

Fans who had seen glimpses of the now 21-year-old Palmer’s unquestionable talent over the previous three years and had this summer watched their club sell senior midfielders in Ilkay Gündogan and Riyad Mahrez could have been forgiven for expecting Palmer to become a more prominent member of the team.

But that feeling lasted barely an hour after the final whistle, with manager Pep Guardiola quickly throwing doubt over Palmer’s future.

“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,” Guardiola said. “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 made it clear that he wanted more regular game time. He had played a key role for England Under-21s as they won the UEFA European Championship this summer, contributing three assists and a goal on the way to glory and now, more than three years on from his first-team debut for City, Palmer wanted regular first-team action.

Guardiola wasn’t willing to guarantee that, so Palmer made his move. He didn’t play another second for City and has now completed the move that seemingly every young midfielder is making these days: off to Chelsea he went.

“I’m excited to get started and it feels great to sign,” Palmer told Chelsea’s official website after completing 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.”

The England U21 international has patently been reassured that there is more chance of him playing at Chelsea than there was at City. Chelsea are investing heavily in youth at the moment – the signing of Palmer took their total spend since Todd Boehly bought the club in May 2022 past £1 billion – and manager Mauricio Pochettino is obviously happy to give young players a chance. But it is also reasonable to ask if there will really be more opportunities for him at Stamford Bridge?

Chelsea are clearly battling on different ground to City. They aren’t in European competition this season while City won the UEFA Champions League earlier this year and are favourites to win it again. But Chelsea also want to win trophies. Pochettino has insisted that his new club, while changing their approach to youth in that buying, developing and nurturing talented players is now a key component of their strategy, also need to battle for titles straight away. “That is the objective because if Chelsea don’t win titles, then for sure we are going to talk about the project failing,” he recently said in an interview with The Athletic.

So, there won’t be time for patience at Stamford Bridge. They need players who will immediately improve the team and help them battle for trophies. Palmer is an exceptionally talented footballer with a very bright future, and he could become a Premier League star one day, but it’s not entirely clear that he will come in and improve the first team at Chelsea straight away. That might be because it isn’t immediately obvious where he fits in, if regular starts are indeed part of the reason he moved.

Palmer has just 490 minutes of Premier League football to his name in his entire career – equivalent to less than five and a half full matches – plus 184 minutes, or just over two full matches, in the Champions League. In truth, he hasn’t played enough senior football to make it obvious what his best position is.

He is a technically gifted midfielder who loves to get on the ball and drive forward with it. His dribbling is probably his biggest strength; he glides past opponents so effortlessly that there is a great deal about his game which could convince you that he fits the bill perfectly as one of Guardiola’s wide forwards. He completed more dribbles per 90 minutes in all competitions in 2022-23 than any other Manchester City player.

Cole Palmer Man City dribbles

He looks most comfortable on the right side of attack, cutting inside on to his stronger left foot to curl crosses towards goal or shoot, as he did to great effect in scoring his Community Shield goal against Arsenal last month.

A revitalised Raheem Sterling has started on the right side of Chelsea’s front three in all three of their Premier League games so far under Pochettino, though, and given his early-season form and the fact that he is one of very few experienced, senior members of the Chelsea squad, there isn’t much chance of Palmer getting a great deal of playing time in that position.

He actually played more for City on the left side of attack, with 25% of his minutes in that position, compared to 21% on the right. He also played 22% of his minutes in central midfield and 10% in a number 10 role.

Cole Palmer positions played for Man City

There were times when him playing on the left seemed to limit his effectiveness, as he was more comfortable going around the outside than moving towards goal. Just like the left-footed Phil Foden before him, though, that was where Guardiola preferred to use Palmer.

Chelsea have lots of options in that position, including Mykhailo Mudryk, Noni Madueke and Carney Chukwuemeka, but Chukwuemeka is facing a spell on the sidelines, there is talk of Pochettino being unconvinced by Mudryk and Madueke is better on the right flank.

Enzo Fernández played in a more advanced role against Luton last week, and forwards Nicolas Jackson and Christopher Nkunku could both play on the left flank if need be, but Palmer is surely seen a better option than any of those players for that role. His 10.7 progressive carries per 90 last season was among the best in the City squad, and give an indication as to how effective he is with the ball at his feet.

Meanwhile, Palmer put in one of his best performances for England U21s this summer playing in a deeper role in central midfield against Germany. That game was just a dead rubber, with England already through to the knockout stages, but the confidence he showed in demanding the ball from the centre-backs, turning and driving through midfield hinted at a potential future as a number eight. Only centre-back Charlie Cresswell (27) made more carries that day than Palmer (22), who also completed 44 of his 47 passes.

Chelsea have spent big on their new-look central midfield, though, and it is unlikely that Palmer will be deemed ready to step in or possibly even deputise there. Winning the ball back isn’t his forte – his 4.2 recoveries per 90 in all competitions in 2022-23 was among the lowest in the City squad.

However, with Sterling providing width on the right side of attack, Chelsea’s left-sided forward may be asked to come infield more and add an extra body to what would otherwise be a two-man central midfield in their 3-4-2-1 shape. They have started all three Premier League games in that shape so far, and will require an extra player in central positions against teams that try to overload them in that part of the pitch. An inside-left role would allow Palmer to come into central positions to get on the ball regularly and would seem to suit him more than the high-and-wide left-sided position that Guardiola asks City’s wingers to play.

There are plenty of options for Palmer’s role at Chelsea, then. He is a versatile player who could adapt and fit in a number of holes in the Chelsea team depending on what Pochettino wants, though there is a chance that that versatility comes to count against him. He may find that he is shifted around to fit around others rather than consistently being put in his best position.

The move represents a big risk for Palmer. He could quite feasibly face more competition for action at Chelsea than he had done at City, and with no European football at Stamford Bridge there aren’t as many minutes to go around, either.

But the talent is there and Palmer, just like every other big signing at Chelsea this summer, will back himself to make the move work. Time will tell if it was a risk he was right to take.

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