Before the 2021-22 Premier League season commenced, last year’s Champions League finalists shattered their transfer records. The footballing world was brimming with excitement at watching superstars Romelu Lukaku and Jack Grealish ply their trade for two expected title contenders in Manchester City and Chelsea. And they were not alone in strengthening their squads. Manchester United completed the signings of Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, infusing their side with talent and experience, while Arsenal signed young center-back Ben White and converted ex-loanee Martin Odegaard into a permanent member of a new-look midfield. The stage had been set for a tantalising season ahead, with pundits and fans all over the world waiting to see these fresh faces in action for the biggest clubs on the planet. Amidst all this excitement, no one could have predicted that the deal of the season would be a loan featuring a stocky, moppy-haired midfielder from Epsom.
In a matter of months, Conor Gallagher has gone from being one of Chelsea’s myriad of youth prospects to being one of the most exciting talents in England’s top flight. Gallagher spent the 2020-21 season on loan at West Brom, where he showed flashes of brilliance in an abject Hawthorns side. Unable to break into Chelsea’s first-team setup, especially into a midfield featuring veterans like Mateo Kovacic, N’golo Kanté and Jorginho in addition to new signing Saul and England superstar Mason Mount, both player and club agreed that a fresh Premier League loan move would be in their best interests. Crystal Palace, a club undergoing a youth revolution under Patrick Vieira after Hodgson’s stagnant tenure, offered an ideal opportunity for Gallagher to get acclimatised to Premier League football in a progressive and ambitious side. Playing under one of the best midfielders to have played the game was an added bonus, as it offered him an opportunity to learn from someone who has excelled in his own position.
As Billy Gilmour has experienced at Norwich, adapting to a new environment is not always a smooth transition, especially with the threat of relegation looming large. Gallagher, however, has taken to the move like a duck to water. Vieira placed his trust in Palace’s younger players after a summer of change, and Gallagher has grasped this opportunity with gusto and excitement. After an abject showing in the first two games of the season, Palace looked in desperate need of a source of inspiration – and up stepped Gallagher. He announced himself with a game-saving performance at West Ham – scoring a brace away to a side that has established itself as a European contender. That game galvanised Palace into a rich vein of form, including a dominant 3-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur, and Gallagher used the momentum boost from his stellar performance to consistently deliver when his team needed him most.
He is a classic ‘number 8’ who flourishes in a box to box role. His game is incredibly well-rounded and combines tireless running and defensive work with surging forays into the opposition box and a wide passing range. He is not averse to taking chances from outside the box either, with his brilliant strike against Everton a testament to his shooting prowess. He has usually played in a more advanced midfield role at Palace, where he is able to conduct attacks and link-up play with teammates Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke – both of whom have benefitted from playing with the prodigious talent. All the aforementioned skills have culminated in 6 goals and 3 assists so far this season, both of which are the highest at Palace this season. While he is outperforming his xG (3.6), Gallagher seems to have a tendency to play with more freedom and creativity when Will Hughes or James McCarthur is fit, as he can flow forward without worrying about defensive duties. With Hughes slowly coming into form after a series of niggling injuries, you can expect Gallagher to rack up the goal involvements further. Odsonne Edouard’s performances are also providing him with a sharp outlet to increase his numbers.
His stellar performances did not go unnoticed, with pundits and fans alike realising his talent and potential. A blistering start to the season was rewarded by Gareth Southgate with an England cap after a series of injuries saw a shortage in midfield during the last international break. In what was definitely a proud moment for both the player and those close to him, he came off the bench to play the second half of a 10-0 win against minnows San Marino. Gallagher will target Southgate’s 23 man squad for this year’s Qatar World Cup, where he will be hoping to line up alongside fellow Chelsea academy graduates Declan Rice and Mason Mount. The stiff competition for places is unlikely to deter Gallagher, who has shown remarkable fearlessness and determination in his Palace stint so far.
Regardless of whether he makes the World Cup squad, the idea of Gallagher playing next season in Chelsea blue is slowly but surely becoming a reality. After two consecutive seasons out on loan, he looks set to return to his boyhood club with newfound experience and skills after playing with a variety of players and under tactically different coaches. With Jorginho and Kanté ageing (with the latter becoming increasingly injury-prone), Gallagher will be expected to fill in alongside Mount in what promises to be a long-term partnership that will form the foundation of Chelsea’s success going forwards. With his directness, passing ability and linkup play, he is likely to offer an alternate outlet for a Chelsea side that have lately been struggling to score against low-block opposition after a strong start to their season. Indeed, had there not been a clause against the same in his current loan deal, Tuchel would have seriously considered recalling the midfielder early on the back of his dominant performances.
With the first half of the season finished, Palace are lying comfortably in 11th and safe from the perils of relegation. Unfortunately, European places are out of their reach given their points total – which is creditable given the large-scale changes, but not enough in a season where the likes of West Ham, Wolves and Leicester are hunting down the conventional top six. While Palace may be limited in their ambitions for the rest of the season, Gallagher will definitely not limit himself. After being in the shadow of the likes of Mount and Gilmour, he is finally stepping into the spotlight. The footballing world needs to watch out because Conor Gallagher has hit his stride – and it’s only going to get better from here.
Written by Hrishikesh Chaudhuri | Feature Image taken by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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