Conor Gallagher was deservedly voted as Crystal Palace’s Player of the Year last season. Only Wilfried Zaha scored more goals than the Chelsea loanee, while only Michael Olise provided more assists. Gallagher was also the man who set the tone for the Palace press, constantly hassling and harrying his opponents high up the pitch.
His absence in 2022/23 will necessitate a tactical tweak from Patrick Vieira. The man most likely to replace Gallagher is Eberechi Eze, although he will bring different qualities to the role. And although Gallagher was integral last time out, Eze’s return to regular action will be a major boost for Palace.
Vieira eased the former Queens Park Rangers man back into action last term. Eze tore his achilles in May 2021, a heartbreaking end to an excellent debut season at Selhurst Park – especially as he learned immediately after suffering the injury in training that he had been selected in Gareth Southgate’s provisional squad for the European Championship.
Eze returned to action earlier than expected, in the 2-1 home defeat by Aston Villa in late November. His first start of the season came a few weeks later, as Palace came from behind to beat Millwall in the third round of the FA Cup. Eze was named in the XI four times in that competition as the Eagles reached the semi-finals for only the fifth time in their history, but he was restricted to only six starts in the Premier League.
He is likely to surpass that tally within the first two months of the upcoming campaign. The question is not whether he will get into the team on a regular basis, but where exactly he will be deployed. Eze can play as a No.10, off either flank or as a No.8. Vieira, who wants his team to be flexible and is likely to switch between formations this season, is sure to make use of the 24-year-old’s versatility.
When Palace are configured in a 4-3-3 system, Eze is most likely to play as the right-sided central midfielder. Jeffrey Schlupp, who provides something different to Palace’s other engine-room operators with his driving off-the-ball runs, is a better fit on the left. In games where Palace are likely to dominate possession, Vieira might prefer the left-footed Will Hughes in that berth. Cheick Doucoure, a summer signing from Lens, will be the first-choice holder.
Eze will at times to be used off the left too. That is Wilfried Zaha’s preferred role, but Vieira occasionally stationed Palace’s talisman through the middle in 2021/22. Eze’s dribbling and ball-carrying skills means he is an asset on the counter-attack as well as in phases of established possession, and he would relish cutting infield onto his stronger right foot from the left.
Gallagher was often deployed as a central attacking midfielder last campaign and Eze has the tools to thrive there too. He is not as energetic or industrious out of possession as his former team-mate, but that is not to say he would be unable or unwilling to press from the front. Moreover, he has the technical ability to receive the ball in tight areas and manoeuvre his way out.
“It was a long journey for him,” Vieira said in May of Eze’s route from treatment table to Premier Leauge pitch. “I’m really pleased for him because being out for seven months is really challenging. He is a player who loves football. He likes to be on the field, he loves playing the game and he loves playing football.”
Palace fans will also love seeing Eze back doing what he does best.