Cole Palmer’s imagination and audacity integral to Chelsea’s future

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Cole Palmer;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Cole Palmer</a> seems to revel in the chance to produce the unpredictable for Chelsea.</span><span>Photograph: John Walton/PA</span>

Sometimes it is possible to watch football and know what is going to happen next. That’s Erling Haaland dispatching a one-on-one, or Virgil van Dijk coming out on top in a duel. Other times you watch not knowing, but hoping, the possibilities determined by your imagination. Such moments are less certain, but they are altogether more exciting, and Cole Palmer seems to revel in them.

Moments such as the goal which sealed his hat-trick against Everton on Monday night. Intercepting Jordan Pickford’s clearance, the Chelsea forward could have done a number of things to make the goalkeeper pay, but he chose the most immediate, the most daring, the prettiest even. With Nicolas Jackson looking for a lay-off and yards of space in front of him, Palmer chose instead to hit an instant right-foot wedge shot from 35 yards. At first it seemed to loft too high into the west London night, but then the ball dipped, just in time, ducked under Pickford’s crossbar and set the crowd alight.

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A similar argument could be spun around Palmer’s first goal, a nutmeg followed by a backheeled flick and a first-time finish into the left corner. At each instant, the question was: will he? After each instant, the answer came: yes. Inside the ground there were cheers, involuntary exclamations, and perhaps the sense of the biggest trolley dash in footballing history being salvaged by the actions of one man.

Paying £42m on deadline day for a player with 1,481 minutes of first-team football to his name seemed about typical for the Boehly/Eghbali Chelsea project; that is to say it sounded crazy. An impulsive purchase, it contrasted with the cold, strategic approach of Manchester City, where Pep Guardiola had been unable to grant Palmer the minutes he desired and was unwilling to loan him out. City always have a price and they got it, but while the money still looks good, the player looks better.

Palmer plays with imagination and audacity. The nutmeg is his friend, the pass with the outside of the boot a standard, and he has a retinue of other tricks he can flick through if they suit the moment (see the rollover that caused the ball to bounce over an advancing Thomas Kaminski as Palmer scored his first Chelsea double against Luton). These abilities are enabled by a confidence crucial in Palmer – the league’s joint top scorer – becoming such a breakout success.

The 21-year-old tells the story of how he came to score his first Chelsea goal thanks to Raheem Sterling, who let the new boy deputise as penalty taker during October’s match against Burnley. Sterling might have come to regret this decision, however, because Palmer scored and by the next time a spot-kick was awarded, against Arsenal, he wanted to take that one, too. Palmer asked Sterling, who acquiesced, and Palmer has gone on to take the penalties in every league game he has played since. Palmer’s spot-kick record for Chelsea is nine taken, nine scored, and only Frank Lampard (10) has converted more in a season for the club.

The irony of Noni Madueke and Nicolas Jackson scrapping over the right to take a penalty only to be told that, no, this ball is Cole’s, should probably be noted. But the anxiety displayed by his teammates as they sought to get on the scoresheet reinforces why Palmer has the penalty duties in the first place. Certainly Palmer’s supremacy was instantly reinforced by Mauricio Pochettino, who has found himself having to dig ever deeper into his managerial lexicon to find ways of praising his No 20 without undermining the central message to his callow Chelsea side: that of the primacy of the team. Palmer looked head and shoulders above teammates and opponents alike on Monday night. Jarrad Branthwaite, in particular, will feel chastened; another 21-year-old English talent, the subject of links to Real Madrid, the defender was very much brought down to earth. Both players may yet feature for England this summer, but whereas the debate has previously been about whether they would be selected in Gareth Southgate’s squad, now it may be how best to fit Palmer into the team.

Palmer’s free-kick deflected off Curtis Jones for the winning goal for England Under-21s in the European Championship final last summer, the most significant moment of his career at that point. Nine months later and a vaunted academy prospect is a leading Premier League player. This transformation would not have happened at City (at least not this term, the flourishing of Phil Foden serving as vindication of Guardiola’s methodological approach to development). A more intriguing question is whether it could have happened anywhere else bar Chelsea.

By moving to Stamford Bridge Palmer was able to guarantee what he wanted: Premier League minutes. But he was also able to play at a glamorous, top-tier club without the pressure of great expectations. Chelsea were a team in transition before the season began and things went backwards from there. Any number of eye-watering signings failed to make the grade, while the less heralded Palmer set about making a difference. That impact led him to gain security in the team, then authority and now the sense that he is the fulcrum, the source of all good things.

Chelsea could yet end the season with a trophy and European qualification, but either way expectations will rise again next season. Palmer will also be a double-marked man, with revenge on the minds of the nutmegged. The sense of Palmer being a cut above, a player who can do things the rest of us can only imagine, may not last. But it will be hard not to enjoy it while it does.