Justice for Conor Gallagher and off-ball specialists

Man On Monday 011

Today’s game is – more than ever – about space. How you see it, use it, manipulate it. Whether you want to concede it or not. The elite teams with the best players, the best coaches, and the most money (!!!) have put positional play at the fore. 

The picture of the modern game, however, is difficult to paint. You think of Pep and those who have worked under him or look up to him. Death by passing. Complete control. Midfielders playing as number nines. Defenders playing as eights. 

Conte – and Mourinho of old – doing their best to unnerve him. 

Ancelotti and Zidane ignoring positional principles and fostering organic relationships between elite players. 

Potter and Frank blending it all together, changing systems every game. This feels like the future.

Marcelo Bielsa once said that there are 29 distinct formations that can be deployed in football. You may not necessarily take his word as scripture like I do, but there are so many options to choose from when deciding a side’s formation or a player’s role. We’ve become so accustomed to predicting a player’s style of play based on where they line up on the pitch. Can we? Is that fair to them?

Think of your favorite midfielders ever. Do they fit into a specific category – an outstanding trait that we remember them for? The dancer. The brains. The bruiser. The bomber. The shuttler. The runner. The captain.

These traits obviously overlap. That’s often what makes the best players, the very best players. Gerrard was a runner, bruiser, and captain. Iniesta danced while being aware of everything around him. Gattuso’s only role was to destroy everything in sight. They’re all greats, and the list goes on. You and I could come up with an endless amount of names. 

Midfielders are at the heart of everything. They’re the cement between the stones (word to Erik ten Hag!). 

But what if they don’t fit into one of our predetermined categories?

As fans – and as humans – we compartmentalize and compare. It feels natural, and it’s easy. The instinct is ever so prominent in today’s mediatized sports culture. We feel inclined to have surface-level conversations in which there’s always a winner and a loser. Players don’t fit our ways of seeing the game and they are cast aside. They’re laughed at, memed.

It shouldn’t be this way.

This essay is part tactical analysis, part apology.

This time last year, Conor Gallagher was Crystal Palace’s second top-scorer behind Wilfred Zaha. He had just received his first England call-up a few months prior, and looked to be one of England’s next bright talents. Things suddenly look much different. 

Since returning to Chelsea, Gallagher has completed his initial goal of breaking into the first team – both Tuchel and Potter have now given him a chance. 

It hasn’t been very well received. Chelsea have struggled to find any sort of momentum this season. The money spent doesn’t help their case, and as they find themselves under the microscope, Conor seems to be at the heart of it all. Fans call his cameos cardio sessions. They don’t understand what he brings to the table. And I get it; it’s difficult. Chelsea’s squad and form are more disjointed than most. 

Gallagher’s profile is a tricky one. He calls himself a box-to-box midfielder. Patrick Vieira likened him to Frank Lampard and Ray Parlour last season. He managed eight goals for Palace as the most advanced of three midfielders, where he wasn’t responsible for progressing the ball but rather receiving it in dangerous areas. He lined up with the dangerous and inventive Michael Olise to his right and a true target man ahead of him. 

The game was more simple than it is at Chelsea: Palace didn’t dominate possession as often but displayed the elements you would look for from an elite side (note their 2021/22 expected points from Understat in the graphic below). 

They usually set up in a classic 4-3-3 but occasionally deployed a 4-4-2. Gallagher frequently made runs into the channel when Olise cut inside, benefiting both players. When the ball was on the left, Gallagher lurked in the half-space, from where he could bolt into the box to get on the end of a cross or drop to help recycle possession. As an outfit, Palace looked like what Fulham do this year. The main difference is that they were more willing to press higher, primarily thanks to Conor Gallagher. 

He didn’t have to be the creative spark. Vieira recognized that and gave that mantle to Zaha and Olise. 

In the last three Chelsea games, Gallagher has played the full ninety. In their 0-0 draw with Liverpool, Gallagher actually played ahead of Jorginho and Lewis Hall, who crept into the midfield from the left-hand side in possession. In the games against Fulham and Palace, however, he played in the pivot next to Jorginho. 

All three games made for tough viewing, as Chelsea stifled their opponents effectively but failed to look fluid as a whole. This directly reflected Gallagher’s performances. He provided as good of out-of-possession performances you’ll come across, but lacked some panache when going forward. He isn’t the kind of player to thread silky passes through the lines or take a man on out wide. 

Yet despite taking up similar positions to the ones he took up at Crystal Palace, there was no one ahead of him to then connect play to. Ziyech (below) was consistently dropping in as the wide option, an area that would usually be occupied by Reece James. Without Ziyech ahead of him, Gallagher looked a bit lost. He turned back into pressure several times and derailed what looked to be a clear gameplan. 

The advanced role behind Havertz is the one that Gallagher deputizes for when everyone is fit. Gallagher isn’t Mason Mount. He doesn’t turn as quickly in the half-spaces, nor does he have the same oomph in the final third. Fellow youngster Carney Chukwemeka may even suit that same position more than Conor. 

One of the benefits of when Gallagher is positioned higher up the field is to press and counter-press when the ball is lost. There are few players that are better at this than him. That alone earns you a role in a Graham Potter side. 

Chelsea have lacked true, wide wingers until the arrival of Mudryk and Madueke. The return of Reece James is also a massive bonus. This should change the shape we’ve become accustomed to seeing from Chelsea. It may mean the return of a conventional midfield three, which would benefit most of their midfielders – mostly Gallagher and Mount. 

But then again, that may be the issue. Chelsea spent a lot of money on new players. Boehly and co. will likely want to see returns on their investments quickly.

I know it’s difficult to see him as a mainstay in a side that wants to dominate games with all their shiny new talent. Everton reportedly made a 45 million bid for him at the end of the January window. I think it would have been a good move, especially with Dyche now in charge. But Chelsea decided against letting him leave. There must be a good reason for that. 

Ironically, it feels as though he would have been perfect in the early days of Thomas Tuchel’s tenure when Chelsea were more rigid and took on an underdog-like attitude. 

Potter may follow a similar route in this year’s European knockouts. I think he’d be wise to continue using Gallagher higher up with Felix or Sterling on the opposite side against elite opposition. The kid is a fantastic off-ball runner. He respects others’ space and creates even more for them. 

Players of his mold are hard to place and contextualize, and there are many others like him. Shout out to Franck Kessie, Weston McKennie, Konrad Laimer, and Leon Goreztka. Their energy and defensive output mean we paint them as limited footballers, but they have all made a living getting forward and pinching in with goal contributions. If anything, it serves as an element of surprise.

They fit the description. They just don’t look the way you want them to. 

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