Why did Man City sell Cole Palmer to Chelsea? Transfer explained as Blues star prepares for FA Cup semifinal

Manchester City will seek to bounce back from their Champions League heartbreak in midweek when they face Chelsea in the semifinals of the FA Cup.

Pep Guardiola’s side won last season’s competition as part of a treble and also headed into the weekend as Premier League leaders.

The biggest immediate threat to their FA Cup ambitions is a very familiar face.

Cole Palmer joined Chelsea from City for £42.5 million ($52.8m) last August and has been a revelation amid a turbulent season for Mauricio Pochettino’s youthful side.

The attacking midfielder is level with Erling Haaland at the top of the Premier League scoring charts with 20, having backed up his hat-trick against Manchester United with a four-goal haul in a 6-0 thrashing of Everton last time out.

MORE: Palmer and Haaland neck and neck in Premier League Golden Boot race

Palmer has also assumed penalty duties at Stamford Bridge — much to the apparent chagrin of some team-mates — and has proved to be a nerveless presence from 12 yards.

When City received Chelsea’s offer, it looked like a very weighty fee for a talented player with only three Premier League starts to his name. The Premier League champions are also familiar with selling on jewels of their academy as a reliable source of revenue.

Almost eight months on, it’s hard to see beyond Pep Guardiola, Txiki Begiristain and the rest of the Etihad Stadium brains trust getting this one wrong. City remain locked in a tight title race, in part because they lacked attacking firepower in March draws with Liverpool and Arsenal. This week they bowed out of the Champions League on penalties against Real Madrid.

All of those sound like situations that Palmer, who has thrust himself into the player of the season conversation, might have been able to remedy. 

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Why did Man City sell Cole Palmer?

Unsurprisingly, Palmer’s departure and the reasons for it were a prominent topic of discussion at Guardiola’s pre-match news conference.

“He’s an exceptional player,” the City boss remarked. “I said many times, I didn’t give the minutes that maybe he deserved and now he has at Chelsea. I understand completely.

“He’s a shy guy with a lot of potential. It is what it is. He’s playing fantastic so what can I say? The decision has been made for many reasons.

“He was asking for two seasons to leave and I said stay. He said he wanted to leave. What could we do? I said stay because Riyad [Mahrez] is gone, but for two seasons he wanted to leave.”

Although Palmer being set on the need for a new challenge and that being the driving force of his City exit was fairly common knowledge, Guardiola claiming that the 21-year-old had been in that headspace for a couple of seasons might raise some eyebrows.

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MORE: Why did Pep Guardiola take off Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne against Real Madrid?

When did Cole Palmer make his Man City debut?

Having been an unused substitute four times during the Project Restart phase of the 2019/20 season, Palmer made his City debut in a 3-0 Carabao Cup win at Burnley in September 2020. He didn’t feature for the seniors again that season but went about amassing an EDS highlights reel that proved he was a level above age-group football.

As an overall record of 21 goals in 26 appearances underscores, Premier League 2 had become Palmer’s own personal playground by 2021/22. He opened his City first-team account with an elegant solo goal against Wycombe Wanderers in a Carabao Cup tie before making himself at home at Champions League level with a fine finish in a 5-1 rout at Club Brugge.

Although he didn’t find the net, against West Ham and Everton Palmer performed with distinction in the false-nine role that was so vital to this version of City in between Sergio Aguero and Erling Haaland.

A sumptuous strike in the 4-1 FA Cup third-round win over Swindon Town seemed like it would tee up a big second half to the season for Palmer, with a run at the England squad for the 2022 World Cup at the end of the year not feeling out of the question.

However, a foot injury shortly afterwards sidelined him for three months and he did not play again as the Premier League title race went to the wire. In hindsight, it feels like a sliding doors moment in his career.

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Why did Cole Palmer want to leave Man City?

Palmer was a permanent fixture in matchday squads throughout City’s treble-winning campaign last season, but it proved to be an unhappy one personally.

Haaland smashing records up front and Julian Alvarez making waves on his arrival from River Plate meant a central attacking role was no longer on the table. Palmer was forced to compete with City’s massed ranks of gifted attacking midfielders.

In his favourite position on the right wing, Mahrez was still fulfilling the brief of a left-footed goalscorer cutting inside to punish opponents clinically. Then, during City’s run to the Champions League final, Bernardo Silva made that spot his own through a combination of tactical intelligence, tenacity and technical quality.

Foden also became an option on the right or centrally as Jack Grealish locked down the left flank. Grealish hitting prime form was a relief for Guardiola, given Raheem Sterling’s departure to Chelsea left him light in that position.

MORE: Is Phil Foden the best player in the Premier League this season?

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As such, an opening was identified for Palmer on the left wing. Most of his minutes came out there and it was sometimes a struggle. In some respects, this was to be expected for a young player coming back from a momentum-halting injury in an unfamiliar role. But for Guardiola, who cherishes attackers able to thrive in a variety of positions — just look at the multiple uses he has found for Foden — it might have gone a long way to sealing Palmer’s fate.

Out of 14 Premier League appearances, his two starts came after the title was sealed. There’s a touch of irony to the fact that Palmer looked like he’d finally nailed the left-wing brief during City’s title party at home to Chelsea, where he laid on the only goal for Alvarez and generally dazzled. Notes were taken at Stamford Bridge.

Cole Palmer

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Palmer returned for this season at a peak of form and fitness after starring in England U21s’ Euros triumph and was determined to progress at City or elsewhere. He curled home a signature strike against Arsenal in the Community Shield and stole in at the back post to equalise before Guardiola’s men lifted the UEFA Super Cup via a penalty-shootout win over Sevilla.

“The opinion I had when he arrived [for preseason] is he wanted to leave, but now I don’t know what’s going to happen,” the City boss said after that triumph. Jeremy Doku’s arrival before the end of August will have done plenty to make up Palmer’s mind.

Despite building his reputation as a coach who unequivocally backed youth at Barcelona, Guardiola has become much more cautious in this regard. Even players of elite quality have to work hard to earn trust. The other standouts in the City youth team from which Foden emerged were Jadon Sancho and Brahim Diaz, each doing well enough to progress to this season’s Champions League semifinals. Their careers have not caught fire like Foden’s but they quickly deduced that the waiting game at City was not for them.

Trivial as it might sound, Foden’s status as a boyhood City fan might be very significant. The midfielder’s emotional attachment to the club gave him a reason to wait out tougher times under Guardiola. Sancho and Diaz aren’t from Manchester and Palmer, infamously, was a Manchester United supporter as a child. 

Another factor to consider is the influence of Guardiola’s assistant Juanma Lillo. Palmer and Lillo built up a personal affinity during his breakthrough at City before the experienced Spanish coach left to take charge of Qatari side Al Sadd. The fact Palmer stalled in 2022/23 and then hit form again after Lillo returned to Guardiola’s backroom staff this season could be a coincidence but, along with the post-Swindon injury, it’s now part of a tale of what might have been.

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Cole Palmer career stats

Whoever he supported as a kid, the reason for such wistfulness among some of the City fanbase is the sight of a homegrown Manchester lad shining as one of the best players in the Premier League but no longer in sky blue.

Appearances (Goals)  Premier League FA Cup Carabao Cup Champions League UEFA Super Cup Community Shield
For Man City 19 (0) 5 (2) 6 (1) 8 (1) 1 (1) 2 (1)
For Chelsea 27 (20) 5 (1) 6 (2)

Sometimes a move comes along at the right time, even when it involves the lack of forward planning that Chelsea’s scattergun transfer dealings indicate.

Palmer was highly rated in Manchester and some of the ill-timed circumstances highlighted above made an exit his best option. His immediate high status at Chelsea also says a fair bit about the divergent fortunes of both clubs since they met in the 2021 Champions League final.

The Blues are nestled in between West Ham and Brighton in the Premier League table, two other clubs who were linked with Palmer. Had he gone to the London Stadium or the Amex Stadium and succeeded, it would be easy to frame it as City handing a mid-table team their best player. This is exactly what has happened at Chelsea, albeit with the club’s very recent history of success and the status associated with that giving the story a very different spin.

Even if he had stayed at City as the Mahrez replacement, it is hard to imagine Palmer’s season would have taken off in the manner it has. For the biggest games, it feels unlikely that Guardiola would have looked beyond Foden or Silva on the right flank. Doku’s form has since tailed off, but his explosive start to life in Manchester would have placed him above Palmer in the pecking order when it came to wide attackers. Kevin De Bruyne’s injury problems and Foden switching towards more central roles might have given Palmer more opportunities, but those were not circumstances that were easy to foresee around the time he decided his future lay elsewhere.

One of Palmer’s ice-cool penalties snatched a dramatic 4-4 draw for Chelsea against City in November. He has blossomed considerably since and Guardiola must face up to the fact that the biggest threat to his team this weekend is one he did plenty to nurture. For City’s prolific youth system, Palmer truly is the one who got away.

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