Conor Gallagher’s man-of-the-match display against Manchester City was a further sign of the fantastic season he is enjoying at Crystal Palace. He covered 12.5km in the 90 minutes and said “I can’t feel my legs” afterwards but they have plenty more work to do because he is only going to get better.
The midfielder, on loan from Chelsea, has all the qualities one would want: he scores and creates goals, hassles opponents and has the energy to do it for the entire game, making him a fine teammate and very annoying opponent. In 15 of his 25 appearances this season he has covered more ground than anyone else in a Palace shirt, providing the energy at the heart of midfield to lead them to a comfortable mid-table position.
I saw Gallagher last season at West Brom and thought he struggled and maybe that was an awakening for him. I did not think then that he had the speed or power for the top flight, so it is great to see he has improved his physical capabilities. I do not know how the change has come about or whether it is just the natural development of a young player allowing his body to get used to the rigours of the game at this level but the important thing is it is working for him.
Getting the right loan is imperative for the player and parent club to make sure it will be helpful for development. A lot of effort and research is put into these matters, because if an individual signs for a club with the wrong coach or style for them it can mean the deal benefits no one. Gallagher has proven at Swansea and Palace what can be done in the right hands. Parent clubs know the quality of their players – they just need to see whether they can perform every week in the professional game.
Patrick Vieira has changed Palace this season, creating a more dynamic and attacking style with Gallagher at its heart. They have gone from having the oldest average age in the Premier League to being a team of young and vibrant players able on their day to match the very best England has to offer.
Palace have taken four points off Manchester City, with Gallagher scoring in the win at the Etihad. He is already used to coming up with big performances in key games against supposedly superior opposition, showing that nothing fazes him, and that is a quality Chelsea will have noted. These are fine traits built on the platform of desire to outrun those around him. I remember seeing Gallagher at Chelsea because his youth team trained on the pitch after the women’s team – he is very memorable because his playing (and hair) style have always been the same.
Those in the stands can see what a player such as Gallagher brings to the team because he is all-action. Sometimes it is hard to notice what a more subtle player offers but there is no mistaking Gallagher’s efforts and that will always lift a crowd. Palace fans must be quite upset that they almost certainly will not be able to keep him beyond this season. Gallagher has probably increased his value four-fold since moving to Selhurst Park thanks to his eight goals and three assists, meaning Palace will most likely be priced out of buying him.
Chelsea will be very keen to have Gallagher back because every club wants a player like him. It is easy to see what he could offer Chelsea and – no disrespect to Palace – how he could further improve working alongside better players every day. Gallagher, though, will not want his progression stifled by becoming a squad player, reduced to accepting minutes off the bench, especially with a World Cup at the end of the year. There are plenty of cautionary tales for Gallagher at Stamford Bridge, where talented midfielders such as Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have struggled to find the right path on their journey through Chelsea’s hybrid loan system.
It would be interesting to see where he could fit into Chelsea’s starting XI. He is certainly not in the Jorginho mould and would offer a different style to Mateo Kovacic. I think he could be perfect alongside N’Golo Kanté in the centre of the park, each able to make runs at the right time to bring constant energy to the side.
Gallagher has made his England debut before his Chelsea one, which seems a strange thing, and more caps could come his way after a fully deserved call-up on Thursday. Gareth Southgate will have Gallagher in his thoughts for his World Cup squad but he does not obviously fit into the current England system. There are a lot of players ahead of him; you cannot ignore what Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips did at the Euros providing the stability Southgate desires in midfield.
I am sure Gallagher could operate in that role but he would need to improve his tactical awareness. He likes to get ahead of the ball, which did not happen regularly last summer for England’s midfielders. Alternatively, Gallagher could fit into one of the more advanced roles but I am not sure he would oust Mason Mount, Phil Foden or Jack Grealish at the moment as a No 10.
Natural desire will ensure that Gallagher keeps improving. He will continue to make runs, create chances, score goals and put pressure on defenders in a game where pressing is becoming all the more important. All great players, alongside their qualities, have outstanding consistency which Gallagher will be striving to bring to his game as the seasons tick by. He just needs to make sure his legs can keep up.