When Mauricio Pochettino revealed he had not been consulted on the signing of Cole Palmer, it elicited a collective eye roll.
The 23-year-old’s arrival took spending under the Todd Boehly era, still barely a year old, over the £1bn mark.
The post-Abramovich Chelsea were already a figure of fun, having finished outside the top half for the first time since 1996 last season with a squad barely able to fit inside the training ground dressing room.
In the final days of the summer transfer window their still disjointed squad was arguably crying out for another No 9.
Christopher Nkunku was likely to miss the entire season, fellow new arrival Nicolas Jackson still wet behind the ears and Armando Broja yet to kick a ball in 2023.
What they got instead was a Manchester City playmaker who had played less than 500 Premier League minutes across the two seasons since his debut.
It might be the best signing Boehly has made yet. And he might just show his old employers what they’re missing this weekend.
The early signs, and they are very early, are that Palmer is exactly the player Chelsea needed after all. Perhaps his biggest concern is whether he has the players he needs around him.
Across the whole top flight this season, only Mo Salah has created more big chances per 90. Only Gabriel Jesus and Harvey Elliott have won the ball back more in the final third. No one has completed more through balls, so integral to the Blues’ counter-attacking style.
Bearing in mind he only made his first Premier League start for the Blues against Fulham in early October, Palmer has taken no time at all to adapt to West London, a remarkable adjustment after spending his entire career progressing through the Etihad Campus ranks.
His performance against Tottenham on Monday night summed things up on and off the pitch.
While Chelsea’s inexperienced frontline floundered against the Spurs’ bizarre back seven, Palmer kept his head. He was always at the heart of the action, always looking to move the ball on quickly, and dropped deep as required to help exploit the hosts’ high line.
He ended the game with the second-most passes in the opposition half, an assist and a goal – and another notch of respect in his rapidly blossoming career.
Perhaps the best was yet to come. Fully aware he was about to hand over the man of the match award to hat-trick goalscorer Nicolas Jackson, he said of his team-mate: “He was brilliant tonight – and he just needs to work hard on the training pitch, keep his head down and he’ll get many more hat-tricks.”
Sky Sports’ Pat Davison was so taken aback, he had to double check what he’d said. “You can always work harder,” was the deadpan reply.
These felt more like the words of a veteran captain, a Thiago Silva type, rather than a 21-year-old newcomer over a year younger than his colleague.
This is nothing new either. Palmer was pictured during the defeat to Brentford last month throwing his arms up in frustration at Jackson’s poor movement ahead of him. It was only his fourth league start for the club.
But this is the education which has been entrenched by his Manchester City roots. Creative midfielders thrive under Pep Guardiola. Just look at Bernardo Silva at full throttle.
The chiselled definition of his philosophy – always looking for the next pass, moving the ball with purpose, death by a million passes – is more apparent in Palmer’s game than even Enzo Fernandez, the man Chelsea spent £100m on in January to improve their creative spark.
Pep’s demanding nature has rubbed off just as strongly, growing up as he did under the manager’s watchful eye even while he rose through the academy.
When Palmer first arrived at Stamford Bridge, there were questions whether he would earn any more game time than he did at the Etihad.
Perhaps scoring in both the Community Shield and European Super Cup was a hint that there was more to him than a promising youngster who had been unable to unseat some of the world’s best midfielders.
But still, no one could have guessed the impact he would have in such a short period of time among £960m worth of existing talent.
Even by the time of his first league start at Craven Cottage, the clamour around him was rising. He came off the bench in the previous league game with Aston Villa and finally gave the hosts a measure of control – even with 10 men – which they had lacked in the 68 minutes to that point.
He got the nod three days later against Brighton in the Carabao Cup, made Jackson’s goal in a 1-0 win, and never looked back.
Publicly, Pochettino tried to temper expectations. “Cole is a very talented player, he’s still young, he still needs to settle at the club and the city but we saw how good he is today,” he said.
But privately, he was convinced. Palmer has started each of the six games since, scoring three goals, making as many more.
Digging deeper into the metrics, he sits second in the league for the proportion of passes completed above what would you would normally expect. It matches what most around Stamford Bridge have noticed with the naked eye.
On Monday night, Pochettino finally let his guard drop slightly, satisfied now Palmer is more than a flash in the pan performer or someone whose hopes must be tempered.
“When he arrived on the last day of the transfer window, we were thinking he could be the playmaker we needed,” he told Sky Sports.
It was very different from what he said at the time. But then again, so is everything around Palmer.
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