The key quality that gives Cole Palmer the edge over Riyad Mahrez and other Man City stars

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As West Ham’s fifth penalty hit the back of the net on Wednesday evening, the curtain came down on a remarkable chapter in Manchester City history.

For five years and one day City had not experienced elimination from the League Cup, winning each of the past four editions of the competition.

Wednesday’s game against the Hammers spelt the end of an era, but also marked the beginning of a new one. Academy graduate Cole Palmer, fast becoming a first-team regular for the Blues, impressed on only his second senior competitive start.

Despite his tender age, the 19-year-old showed just why he could soon threaten Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling’s places in Pep Guardiola’s side.

Palmer was chucked in at the deep end by Guardiola on Wednesday, the Catalan deciding to try out the England Under-21 star as a false nine. In the sink or swim situation of playing in an unfamiliar position, one that Phil Foden found himself in last season away at Liverpool, it was promising that Palmer followed the example set by his fellow CFA graduate; he swam.

The key quality that gives Cole Palmer the edge over Riyad Mahrez and other Man City stars
© PA Manchester City’s Cole Palmer walks out through the bubbles against West Ham.

Flanked by Sterling on his left and Mahrez on his right, after a brief settling in period Palmer looked like he’d played countless games in the role. Certainly, he looked like he’d been a part of the first team for years, not months.

In the first half, he linked up well with both wingers – as well as with free-eights Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan – and forced Alphonse Areola into a good save with a powerful low strike.

In the second period, his influence only increased. Gundogan really should have scored after Palmer played him through on goal with a beautiful turn, before the youngster himself wasted a good chance when he blazed over following Sterling’s cut-back.

With 15 minutes left he was replaced by Gabriel Jesus, but Guardiola was clearly impressed by what he labelled an “excellent” performance

What will have pleased the City boss most about Palmer’s exploits this season is that he edges both Mahrez and Sterling in a particular quality that is a huge advantage when playing in Guardiola teams.

Speaking about Foden, the example for City youth products like Palmer to follow, Guardiola recently said: “Some players play in one position, some play football.

“It doesn’t matter where he plays, he plays good. It doesn’t matter. What is important is to understand the game.”

The key quality that gives Cole Palmer the edge over Riyad Mahrez and other Man City stars
© Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images Raheem Sterling has helped Cole Palmer integrate into City’s first team set-up

Guardiola’s dream, adhering to pure Cruyffian principles, would be to field a team of 10 outfield players that could play practically anywhere on the pitch. In theory, set positions shouldn’t be relevant when it comes to controlling games through possession.

Instead of certain players being better at dribbling, or shooting or defending, all players should be highly skilled on the ball and capable of moving around the field as the play dictates.

Of course, there are practical considerations; City can’t go out and assemble a team of Phil Fodens overnight. Neither is Pep oblivious to the obvious qualities that both Sterling and Mahrez bring to his team. Both offer directness and pace that City’s other creative players don’t, as well as an ability to take on a man and get to the byline.

But in Guardiola’s image of how football should be played, both are limited. Mahrez is an outlier among City’s attackers in that he plays exclusively on the right-wing. Sterling can play on either flank, but has shown that he is not suited to playing centrally. In Palmer, Guardiola has a player who is much more positionally versatile than either.

“His development with and without the ball, to try and understand the game and that every game is different… he can play in five positions upfront, wingers, attacking midfielders, even striker”, Pep said of Palmer.

We obviously shouldn’t get too carried away with Cole. Over the years Mahrez and Sterling have proven their pedigree and fully deserve to play in this City team.

But looking at the bigger picture, one thing is becoming clear. In Mahrez and Sterling, City have two wingers; in Palmer, they could end up with a complete footballer.

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