Replacing Conor Gallagher at Crystal Palace

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Out of all the midfielders in the Premier League, very few stand out when it comes to as many attributes as Conor Gallagher. The Chelsea loanee has been on fire all season long at Crystal Palace – bagging 8 goals with 3 assists in 33 matches, alongside some of the best pressing and tackling numbers of players in his position. With his late arriving goal-scoring form and top-tier pressing intensity, Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea are bound to steal Gallagher back into their team, and give him regular minutes next season. A quintessential box-to-box midfielder who can also dovetail as a number ten, Gallagher will be a massive miss for the Eagles next season. So with that, we examine who could possibly come in to replace the 22-year-old midfielder at Crystal Palace next season.

GALLAGHER’S STYLE OF PLAY

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Before assessing the candidates, we must first identify Gallagher’s style of play, and the role he fulfills in Patrick Vieira’s plans. Following John Muller’s ‘No Touch All Stars’ article, it’s become almost impossible to discuss Conor Gallagher without mentioning his inactivity in possession phases of the game. He makes a disproportionate number of dribbles when in possession in comparison to his teammates, and a disproportionately low number of passes, progressive passes, and carries. When he’s not taking players on 1v1, Gallagher is likely to only have the ball at his feet for a brief moment before keeping the game ticking and passing to someone else. 36.54 passes attempted per 90 puts him in the bottom 13% of central midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues, and his 1.87 progressive passes per 90 number puts him in the bottom 3%. To give you a comparison, Joshua Kimmich of Bayern Munich ranks number one on that list, with 9.95 progressive passes per 90.

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But on the other end of the spectrum, Gallagher ranks in the top 7% for dribbles (1.49 completed per 90), and the top 5% for touches in the penalty area (3.04). Here we see a player that may not be entirely inactive in possession, but comes alive when it matters most. Possessing predatory-like instincts in the final third, the Palace man pops up at exactly the right moment to hammer home a finish, exemplified by his 8 goals this season. Encouragingly, he’s also remarkably active in the defensive side of the game. That takes form in his high number of pressures and tackles, not to mention his stellar positional awareness, shifting and shuffling with the play as part of Palace’s stern 4-1-4-1 mid-block structure. Of ‘Attacking Midfielders’, Gallagher ranks in the top 7% in tackles, and top 2% in pressures applied – making him one of the most active pressers on the planet.

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Conor Gallagher essentially possesses the necessary qualities to fit in at any Premier League side, where he can offer a unique cutting edge. Having done the full-blown analysis of his role earlier in the season, his psychological and physical qualities are particularly strong. He’s not bothered by mistakes or fouls from the other team. He just gets on with his game, while making himself a complete and utter nuisance throughout the ninety. For a man who plays like a bulldozer, you would not necessarily expect Gallagher to then possess the tactical intelligence or technical trickery. But the Palace man exceeds in tight spaces, constantly working and wriggling his way out of trouble. As if he’s not already remarkable enough, he even takes set-pieces for his team. But above all else, the 22-year-old’s ability to understand how to best support his team’s striker, and then simultaneously arrive late to the party to finish chances, has been a particular hallmark of his game that signifies his tactical IQ.

PALACE’S NEED + VIEIRA’S STYLE OF PLAY

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While Conor Gallagher has excelled in the process of making himself a ‘No-Touch All-Star’, the next Palace midfielder does not necessarily need to have the same mindset. Simultaneously, his replacement does not need to be an architect, capable of spraying long passes for fun. What they need to be, within Vieira’s style of play, is a box-to-box midfielder, capable of both linking up with the attack, and dropping back to defend. When you look at some of the other midfielders to fulfill the role this season – most recently Jeffrey Schlupp and Eberechi Eze, they too fulfill the description of daring dribblers and maverick-esque types, who don’t contribute an awful lot in phases of possession.

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Breaking that down further, it’s worth noting that Palace’s improvements in possession this season – shooting all the way up to 10th with 51.2% possession, has little to do with their midfielders. The centre-backs keep the majority of the ball in Palace’s progression, patiently shifting the ball left to right until they can find correct avenues to play wide. James McArthur happens to be the only Palace midfielder who contributed more regularly to possession phases this season (48.6 completed passes per game), but even he was never really all that progressive with his passing (4.09 progressive passes per game).

As a result, within the scope of our search, we’re scouring the market for players who have higher percentages in statistics like dribbling and touches in the attacking penalty area, whilst possessing all the necessary defensive qualities to fit into Vieira’s plans. Given Gallagher’s goal-scoring record, we’re also searching for players who can add a goal threat, or at the very least contribute positively in the final third. While Gallagher’s goals will be hard to replace, Palace should focus more of their energy on replacing the midfielder’s tenacity out of possession, and simultaneous ability to supplement and support a starting striker.

criteria

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Beyond the style of play of Connor Gallagher and Patrick Vieira himself, it’s also worth recognizing Palace’s budget restraints, realism when it comes to player ambition, and historical trends. Palace have typically signed players from leagues below the level of the Premier League, and have dipped into the Championship market on several occasions to great success (Michael Olise, Eberechi Eze, Marc Guehi). In finding a substitute for Gallagher, the Eagles may very well do the exact same again, identifying a player at a cut-price who can fulfill the void. They could also dive into the loan market just as they did for Gallagher himself, finding a youngster still making his way into the game.

With these factors in mind, in addition to both stylistic necessities, we limited our search to players under the age of 26, and almost-entirely excluded other mid-table Premier League sides. Joe Willock for example performs a very similar role at Newcastle United in arriving to the box late to finish off chances, while beasting it up out of possession. But swapping Newcastle for Palace would seem strange, especially after just one season with the Magpies.

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So in finding the best possible Gallagher replacement, we searched for players high in four broad categories – ‘Threat’ (goals, shots, shot-creating actions, progressive passes received, and touches in the attacking-third); ‘Defensive Intensity’ (pressure success, pressure %, tackle %, tackles won, and blocks); ‘Trickery’ (dribbles, dribble %, xA); and ‘Possession’ (lower numbers of passes, progressive passes and carries). We then analyzed the statistical fit of thirty similar players to Gallagher across twelve different leagues, and ultimately narrowed the list down to fifteen names – those who most closely resembled the Palace man, and those who could be deemed ready for the jump. Here are the fifteen names, and how they stack up in some of the most essential features to Gallagher’s game.

CONOR GALLAGHER & THE TOP 15 REPLICAS
PlayerTeamTacklesBlocksGoalsShotsDribbles
Conor GallagherCrystal Palace2.21.90.31.71.4
Alex ScottBristol City22.40.10.80.9
Brais MendezCelta Vigo21.70.11.71
Charles De KetelaereClub Bruges1.41.40.42.31.6
Dani De WitAZ Alkmaar2.41.80.21.70.4
Dele AlliEverton (on loan)2.22.20.10.71.5
Djordje MihailovicCF Montreal 1.820.621.9
Eberechi EzeCrystal Palace0.80.10.21.42.1
Guus TilFeyenoord 1.41.10.42.41.1
James GarnerNottingham Forest21.30.11.20.4
Jamie JacobsCambuur2.91.70.21.30.5
Lewis FergusonAberdeen1.710.33.40.5
Lovro MajerStade Rennais1.51.40.32.21.3
Lucas PaquetaLyon 2.031.40.32.92.3
Marcus TavernierMiddlesbrough2.21.20.121.2
Szymon ŻurkowskiEmpoli 2.31.80.21.91.4

Based on the above data and our subsequent analysis, we now narrow our fifteen name list to just six candidates – the ones most worth Palace’s attention and money. Here are the final six candidates for Crystal Palace in their quest to replace such an irreplicable figurehead.

THE FINAL CANDIDATES

1. LUCAS PAQUETA

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Having developed his game at Flamengo in Brazil, Lucas Paqueta is a silky smooth dribbler who loves to trick his opposition into misery. A dynamic dribbler with an eye for goal, Paqueta has been a staple of Lyon for two seasons now, scoring 9 goals in each of his campaigns. Encouragingly from a Palace perspective, Paqueta matches up to Gallagher in almost every regard. He ranks high in pressures, dribbles, shots, goals, and even surpasses all in his position as the top tackling ‘attacking midfielder’ in Europe’s top five leagues – 2.95 per 90 in the last 365 days.

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Capable of playing as either a ‘number 8′ or ’10’, Paqueta would offer Palace a great deal of poise and experience in possession, whilst fulfilling a very similar role to the man they wish to replace. Since the departure of Bruno Guimaraes, Paqueta’s taken on a deeper role in Lyon’s 4-3-3, playing either on the left or right of Maxence Caqueret. Capable of handling both the attacking and defensive responsibilities, Paqueta has to be a name Palace have on their radar in signing a new central midfielder. The only problem would be the cost – with the 24-year-old currently valued at £31.5 million according to Transfermarkt. Possessing a fantastic technical skill-set, the dynamic dribbler could easily sign for a bigger club. But with no European football next season to look forward to, Palace can reasonably make a move for Lucas Paqueta, and have him join up with another former Lyon man in the form of Joachim Andersen.

2. SZYMON ZURKOWSKI

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If looking for a Conor Gallagher replica, there are few who hit the mark like Szymon Żurkowski. The 24-year-old midfielder has been a key cog in Empoli’s success this season, scoring 6 goals with 2 assists in 34 Serie A appearances. He may not be quite as dynamic with the ball at his feet in wriggling out of trouble, but his 6.46 progressive carries per 90 exudes confidence and composure.

Playing on the right side of a midfield three in a 4-3-1-2 system, Zurkowski perfectly exemplifies the high pressing, box-to-box mentality that Gallagher personified at Palace. With a high number of blocks, progressive passes received, touches in the attacking penalty area, and shots, Zurkowski stands out as one of Europe’s rising talents. He’s clever and intelligent with his movement forward into the box, and exceptionally rapid when charging forward on or off the ball. Still only 24-years-old, Transfermarkt has his value listed at only £5.4 million, which would be a coup for anyone smart enough to make a move.

3. LOVRO MAJER

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Slightly more creative and elegant in style, Lovro Majer has to be one of the first names on the target list for Crystal Palace. Majer may well have his ambitions set for higher levels, but going from Stade Rennais to a mid-table Premier League club would be a logical step. Standing in Vieira’s way would be guaranteed European football next season for Rennes, which Majer has played a massive part in claiming for his club; and potentially a fee of around 20 million pounds. But playing on the right-side of a midfield three at Rennes, Majer perfectly fits the mold.

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It’s true that Majer is more creative and influential on the ball for his team, but it’s also irrefutable just how much of a gem he is in all facets of the game. Statistically speaking, he excels in all the right areas – from dribbling, to pressing, to darting forward at the last moment to finish off chances. He even takes set-pieces, ensuring Palace wouldn’t miss Gallagher’s presence from a dead-ball. He’s not your typical Gallagher bulldozer like Zurkowski, but he is an intelligent mover and shaker, fully capable of handling his off-the-ball responsibilities. If a club like Crystal Palace don’t make a move for Lovro Majer soon, another big hitter almost certainly will.

4. JAMES GARNER

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Don’t get me wrong, James Garner and Conor Gallagher are not the same player. But they both excel as box-to-box midfielders, capable of putting a shift in at both ends of the pitch. Garner’s not the greatest goal-scorer, although he has bagged 4 goals this season in 43 Championship matches. His creativity and threat in the final third is better exemplified by his 8 assists and 2 key passes per game, where he uses his box-to-box running power to play his teammates in at exactly the right moment. Solid at the defensive side of the game, Garner has also contributed with 2 tackles and 1.3 blocks per 90. The 21-year-old seems destined for another loan away from Manchester United next season, and Palace would be the perfect place for him to learn his trade.

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An incredibly fun move, Palace would also be opting for a future England international in the making, and continue their trend of signing one of the Championship’s brightest stars each season. Middlesbrough’s Marcus Tavernier or even Bristol City’s young Alex Scott could make for great Championship signings too, but Garner stands out among the pack for his overall play in Nottingham Forest’s stellar season.

5. DELE ALLI

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There is no denying that this would be a risky move, but Dele Alli could make for the perfect Conor Gallagher replacement in many ways – especially if he’s given the platform to fully express himself. Often thought of as “lazy” due to Mourinho’s lambasting of the Brit’s work ethic back in 2020, Alli ranks among the best in pressures and tackles per 90, exists fantastically in tight spaces, and is known for making late runs into the box to score goals. Legitimately, but also quite strangely, the only statistical downside to Alli’s game at the moment (other than his minutes) would be his goal tally. He’s gone from being a penalty box poacher capable of hitting double figures, to more of an off-the-ball runner who contributes in the defensive side of the game more than anything.

But we all know that Dele Alli has the ability to score goals, and Palace could easily get the 26-year-old at a cut-price. Tottenham are evidently willing to do business with their former star, and Palace should be one of many clubs keeping tabs on the Everton loanee.

6. CHARLES De Ketelaere

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From Kevin de Bruyne to Romelu Lukaku to modern examples like Jonathan David and Youri Tielemans, the Belgian Pro League has developed a long history of developing talented youngsters. The next heir set to steal the throne is Charles De Ketelaere, one of the top goal-scoring midfielders on the planet. The 21-year-old has found the back of the net a whopping 14 times in this season’s Jupiler Pro League, contributing another 8 assists. Capable of putting in a shift at the other end of the pitch and contributing to the defensive side of the game, De Ketelaere would be a match made in heaven for Crystal Palace and Patrick Vieira’s current style of play. Again, it comes down to player ambition and transfer fees, which according to Transfermarkt could be around £27 million. Leicester City are also interested in the Belgian, tipping him up to be a potential Youri Tielemans replacement, so Palace need to act fast if they want to enter the race.

VERDICT & CONCLUSION

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After having a remarkable season, Conor Gallagher may seem like an oddly unique player, impossible to replace. But Crystal Palace can find comfort in our fifteen-name list, with each player offering something unique and different to the 22-year-old, whilst having the potential to fulfill Gallagher’s box-to-box promise. All of the names we’ve identified would exist in the same box-to-box way, capable of contributing at all ends of the pitch and all phases of the game, whilst exuding Vieira’s style of play. We narrowed it down to Lucas Paqueta, Szymon Zurkowski, Lovro Majer, James Garner, Dele Alli and Charles De Ketelaere; all of whom would make for excellent players at Palace next season. 21-year-old De Ketelaere likely has the highest ceiling and greatest potential, but there is no better Conor Gallagher replica than Szymon Zurkowski.

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The Empoli man would not only be one of the cheapest options, but he’d also perfectly fit Palace’s current style of play, and likely grow into the league. At 24-years-old, Zurkowski would be expected to stay with the Eagles for years, rather than simply using the club as a stepping stone toward greater avenues. Meanwhile, he’s already familiar playing as a ‘number 8’ for a team with an incredibly similar style of play, where he frequently adopts the same attacking and defensive positions as Conor Gallagher for Palace.

Replacing Conor Gallagher and his goals will always be a difficult task for Crystal Palace heading into next season, but we believe we’ve found our man in Szymon Zurkowski.


So there it is! Replacing Conor Gallagher at Crystal Palace! Be sure to check out more of our Player Analyses, our in-depth Conor Gallagher piece, and more Transfer Market Analyses ahead of the summer window. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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