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Cole Palmer Is Right Where He Needs To Be

Cole Palmer of Chelsea celebrates scoring his team's third goal, his hat-trick, during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Everton FC at Stamford Bridge on April 15, 2024 in London, England.
Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Cole Palmer is unmistakably sure of himself. Here we have a 21-year-old forward who was more or less forced out at his boyhood club Manchester City, where he'd hardly even been a bit-part player the last couple years, who in this, his first professional season as a regular, in a big, expensive, dysfunctional team, automatically assumed the role as the team's star as if it were the only role he'd ever known. But it's not even just that, nor is it how (individually) successful his starring act has been (after bagging four against Everton on Monday, his 20 goals this season have him tied with former teammate Erling Haaland as the Premier League's top scorers). The main thing about Palmer is that with this new team and this starring role and this staggering (individual) success, the 21-year-old first-time starter comes across as supremely unsurprised and unbothered, a young man with a well of self confidence so deep and icy that all of this looks to have been precisely what he'd expected of himself this whole time.

In spite of Palmer's nickname-inspiring coldness in the face of pressure and success alike, there is nothing normal about scoring four goals in one game. The first of his poker was the pick of the bunch, and the most indicative of what makes him the player he is. Collecting the ball in a pocket of space in front of Everton's back line, Palmer got the ball under control, faced up Toffee defender Jarrad Branthwaite, poked the ball between the onrushing Branthwaite's legs, sidestepped the big Englishman to rejoin the ball on the other side, turned away from two other Toffees closing him down, tapped the ball over to teammate Nicolas Jackson with a nifty side-footed flick, floated into another threatening pocket of space while gesturing for Jackson to return the pass, and as the return pass came to him, angled his body and adjusted his gait so that he could unleash an accurate, lightning-quick finish that sent the ball from the crown of the penalty area into the lower corner of Everton's net. The move displayed Palmer's flair, calmness, nose for space, and dead-eyed shooting, all of which make him such a lethal force when hunting for goals.

That first goal came just 13 minutes into the match. Less than 20 minutes later, Palmer already had his hat trick. His next goal was more routine, a simple tap-in header to clean up a rebound, though the run that put him in position for it speaks to his hunger for goals and his instinct for movement. His third was the most deceptive. Palmer, who is as immune to mental pressure as he is to his coach's requests that he exert some defensive pressure on opponents, just so happened to be well positioned to intercept a terrible Jordan Pickford pass deep in his own territory, after which Palmer hit a lucky rainbow shot with his weaker right foot that dropped just in time to fall into rather than on top of the net. Palmer's fourth and final goal, the penalty he won on the pitch and then only semi-metaphorically won the fight to take, was more of what he is traditionally good at: striking the ball sweetly and ignoring stress along the way. He celebrated all four goals with the same smirking nonchalance as he has basically all his others this season, even late game-winners. Again, it all seems to be just about what Palmer expected.

Palmer's maiden season has been sensational by any measure. Nevertheless, it's worth putting it in a little context. Even with all the goals and assists (he has nine of those in league play) and points he's almost single-handedly won for this mercurial Chelsea team, it's not yet clear just how good a player Palmer truly is or could one day be. Palmer is, after all, the star of a disaster of a team. His goal record is heavily padded with nine penalties. He looks amazing given total freedom as the Blues' attacking centerpiece, but it's not for nothing that Man City was willing to offload him to an ostensible rival and hasn't yet had much reason to regret the decision. While he's certainly gifted and driven, and his performances deserve oodles of credit and admiration even if they've not led Chelsea out of the middle of the table, there's something about Palmer's season that recalls a shot-chucking NBA guard who gets traded to a lottery team and averages 25 points a game. In a better team—the kind of team Chelsea aspires to be—it's unlikely he'd enjoy the pride of place he currently benefits from. Under those constraints, cast as a supporting act to the real stars, would that Cole Palmer be anywhere near as effective as this one? Is he really Anglo Di María like he looks now, or is he more like Soccer Nick Young?

Fortunately, those questions doesn't really matter at the moment. Palmer isn't in a better team right now, and this mediocre Chelsea is offering him the opportunity to embody the most maximalist version of himself as he can envision. It's only by trying to be a superstar that one eventually becomes one, and Palmer would hardly be the first budding star who first emerged with a struggling team but then grew along with the club until they were both legitimately great. Palmer, Chelsea fans, and anyone else who appreciates fancy flicks, well-hit long shots, and a frighteningly coolheaded personality whose contrast with the extravagance on display only amplifies its impact, can simply bask in where Palmer is now, and trust that the same skills and confidence that got him here will continue to take him just where he wants to go.

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