Nicolas Jackson had the match ball in one hand and finished by clutching the player of the match award in the other, but it was Cole Palmer who stole the show in the amusing tunnel interview that followed Chelsea’s madcap 4-1 win over nine-man Tottenham Hotspur on Monday.
“Obviously it’s been a difficult start for him, no hiding it, but he was brilliant tonight,” Palmer told UK broadcaster Sky Sports when invited to talk about Jackson, the 21-year-old speaking with the air of a 10-year veteran assessing the progress of a teenage team-mate. “He just needs to work harder on the training pitch, keep his head down and I think he’ll get many more hat-tricks.”
When the startled reporter leaned in to confirm if he had in fact just told Jackson — head down and smiling quietly to himself — to show more effort in training, Palmer replied with an incredulous grin: “Of course! You can always work harder!”
It was an illustrative exchange for several reasons.
First, as the latest example of the natural personality that marks Palmer out as one of English football’s more entertaining young talkers.
Second, as a reminder of the high standards, instilled by the relentless intensity of Pep Guardiola during his years with Manchester City’s first team, which have helped him make an immediate and important impact on a youthful squad at new club Chelsea.
Third, as a demonstration of the steely confidence that, two months ago, led him to leave the only club he had ever known in search of a more favourable platform for his talents.
That confidence has been on full display for each of the three high-pressure penalties Palmer has successfully converted in his 515 minutes of Premier League action.
New head coach Mauricio Pochettino has never officially made Palmer his preferred taker, which goes some way towards explaining the conversation that took place with Raheem Sterling when Chelsea were awarded a spot kick against Arsenal last month. Pochettino has simply made it clear to his players that he wants the person with the most belief on the pitch to assume responsibility.
Palmer taking the ball — as he had against Burnley at Turf Moor in the previous match two weeks earlier — was his way of signalling just that, and Enzo Fernandez urging Sterling to let him proceed underlined just how quickly the former City man has earned the trust of his team-mates in big moments.
In another context, such a scene might have been interpreted as a worrying sign of dressing room disharmony, but Sterling and Palmer are too close for any of that.
Back in August, when he was weighing up the possibility of a transfer to Chelsea, Palmer called former City team-mate Sterling for advice. He responded by talking in glowing terms about life under summer appointment Pochettino and the broader project being funded by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, telling Palmer that Stamford Bridge was the place to fulfil his potential.
“Raz (Sterling) has always looked after me, so I appreciate him,” Palmer said in his official interview on signing for Chelsea. “He was one when I was coming through at Man City who put his arm around me. That was amazing for me, for someone of his pedigree and international experience to do that.
“He saw the potential I had. He saw what I was doing in training. We started talking a bit more. I was asking him questions all the time and from there we have always kept in contact.”
Sterling was one of Chelsea’s more dependable performers in a painful start to the season, but it is Palmer’s introduction at the end of September that has provided the creative catalyst for an upturn in results.
In addition to those three crucial goals from penalties, his run of seven consecutive starts across the Carabao Cup and Premier League have yielded four assists. After only two victories and three defeats in the season’s first seven matches, when Palmer wasn’t in the starting XI, Chelsea’s record in the next seven, all of which have had him in the initial line-up, is five wins, one draw and one loss.
Just as impressive is the variety of ways Palmer has been used in Chelsea’s attack.
Pochettino gave him his first minutes off the bench in the home defeat against Nottingham Forest on September 2 as a No 8. His most common role has been as a playmaking right-winger granted the freedom to drift into the No 10 position, but he was deployed to good effect as a false nine in that 2-2 draw with Arsenal, leading the team press intelligently out of possession.
Some at Chelsea, speaking anonymously to protect relationships, have already voiced the belief that Palmer is the player they thought they were getting when they signed Kai Havertz three years ago.
“We are happy with the way he has arrived,” Pochettino said of a player who helped England win the Under-21 European Championship this summer, after the 2-0 loss to Brentford almost two weeks ago. “He arrived on the last day of the transfer window but is playing like he’s been here 10 years, showing his character and personality.
“I cannot say, ‘I didn’t expect that’, but also if I say, ‘I expected it’, then I’m lying. You create expectation always when you sign a player but, of course, he’s doing well. You only feel the player when you have the player, and from day one when he started to train, you could see the talent. He still needs time to improve.”
Pochettino’s style of management has resonated with Palmer.
There have been daily conversations and positive encouragement in training sessions and during matches, where Chelsea’s head coach has empowered him to take risks with his passing in the final third and play through any mistakes — a level of trust rarely afforded him by Guardiola.
In these early weeks, the returns have been hugely positive.
Palmer leads the Premier League in completed passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes (4.2), among players who have at least 500 minutes to their name this season, and his 4.5 shot-creating actions per 90 are the most in Chelsea’s squad.
When it comes to key passes (2.32) and expected assists (0.33) per 90, Reece James and Ben Chilwell are the only team-mates who rank higher.
Above all, Palmer gives the impression of a footballer who recognises the opportunity in front of him.
Chelsea are nowhere near City’s current level, but moving to Stamford Bridge has given him the consistent run of Premier League football he had craved for much of 2023. Pochettino’s ongoing rebuild means Palmer can establish himself as a key figure on the ground floor in a team with the aspiration to scale similar heights to his previous one in the coming years.
City’s visit to Stamford Bridge on Sunday will undoubtedly bring added motivation.
Palmer’s gratitude to his boyhood club is well documented, and the stellar football education he received under Guardiola is already serving him well at Chelsea, but their willingness to part with him was an admission that he was ultimately viewed as expendable.
Challenging that conclusion on the pitch will likely require his best performance yet in a Chelsea shirt.
That will not faze Palmer; he knows all too well that you can always work harder.
(Top photos: Getty Images)