“He is standing out every single match.” Any doubts Chelsea fans had about whether Thomas Tuchel was keeping tabs on Conor Gallagher during his loan spell at Crystal Palace were quashed before the weekend’s action. Gallagher responded to the praise with a man-of-the-match performance in Crystal Palace’s 2-0 win over Wolves on Saturday, a game in which he scored his fourth league goal of the season – as many as any player in the Chelsea squad.
Had Tuchel not been watching his team draw 1-1 with Burnley, he would have been impressed by the 21-year-old’s all-action display against Wolves. To go with his goal, Gallagher created four goalscoring chances, and made four tackles and two interceptions. It was the ideal showing for a central midfielder.
Chelsea have a track record of hoovering up young players, loaning them out to boost their reputations and then selling them on for a profit, but the club seems reluctant to rush into a quick sale when it comes to Gallagher. Chelsea elected to cash in on Marc Guéhi in the summer, selling the young centre-back to Crystal Palace for £18m. But they have taken a different approach with Gallagher, suggesting he could still have a future at his parent club.
Both Guéhi and Gallagher joined Chelsea as eight-year-olds and both made their way through the club’s youth teams before going on loan to Swansea. They impressed in the Championship under Steve Cooper but, while Chelsea were willing to sell the defender before he had made an appearance in the Premier League, they have not entertained any offers for Gallagher, a Chelsea fan who grew up a 10-minute drive from the club’s training ground.
Gallagher had an indifferent spell with West Brom last season and it looked like Chelsea might sell him on during the summer, but he has been given another chance this season at Crystal Palace. He is taking it. In a system that plays to his strengths – Palace are a more dynamic side under Patrick Vieira than West Brom were under Slaven Bilic and Sam Allardyce – Gallagher is excelling in a three-man midfield. He has been one of the standout players in the Premier League this season, with his performances exciting both Palace and Chelsea fans. The former are hoping he will remain at Selhurst Park beyond the end of the season; and the latter are considering a reunion.
Much of that depends on what happens next with Chelsea. Tuchel is not short of options in the middle of the park, particularly with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley recently forcing their way back into his plans. Gallagher may look at Saúl Ñíguez as a cautionary tale. The Spain international joined Chelsea on loan in the summer but has only been on the pitch for 47 minutes in the league. With Gareth Southgate discussing Gallagher’s progress last week, he does not want his career to stall.
Yet there are good reasons for Chelsea to recall Gallagher for next season. He is capable of fulfilling a number of duties in midfield and helping others flourish. This tactical flexibility would allow Tuchel’s side to either dominate opponents or win the battle for possession depending on the flow of the game. Tyrick Mitchell (33) is the only Palace player to have made more tackles than Gallagher (26) in the league this season. Gallagher has made more key passes (17) than any other Palace player. He is also joint-top for goals with Wilfried Zaha and joint-top for assists alongside Michael Olise.
Of course, there are parts of Gallagher’s game that need improving, notably his distribution. His pass success rate of 79.8% does not make for great reading, but Mason Mount’s passing figures for Vitesse and Derby were not great before he returned to Chelsea. Mount has gone on to establish himself as a first-team regular for Chelsea and England, and his accuracy in possession has improved as expected.
Gallagher signed a five-year contract with Chelsea last September, so he is evidently valued at the club. Even with immense competition in central midfield at Chelsea, Jorginho turns 30 in December and N’Golo Kanté turns 31 in March, so the club needs to start thinking about life without the pair, even more so given the latter’s injury issues in recent years.
Gallagher should look at the examples of Mount, Reece James and Trevoh Chalobah, who have impressed on loan spells before making an impact in the Chelsea first team. His time at Palace will give him confidence that he can force his way into Tuchel’s plans. Whether that is next season or a little further down the line, Gallagher has shown he could be a key member of the Chelsea midfield in the not-too-distant future.