When Crystal Palace take their transfer business into the Championship, it tends to go well.
Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise, signed from Queens Park Rangers and Reading of English football’s second tier, are the standouts in recent years but they are not alone. Marc Guehi and loanee Conor Gallagher came to Palace from Chelsea, but both had proved their credentials with loan spells in the Championship at Swansea City — and, in Gallagher’s case, at Charlton Athletic too.
Taking the best players from the Championship, developing their talents further and then selling them on for a profit is Palace’s strategy, and the latest case study is Adam Wharton.
The fee paid to Blackburn Rovers for the 19-year-old midfielder, which could rise to £22million ($28m), is higher than that paid for Eze, but transfers have inflated since that 2020 deal and Wharton had many suitors. He signed a five-year contract at Blackburn less than two months ago, which placed more of a premium price tag on him.
So what can Palace expect from their new signing?
EFL ones to watch: Blackburn’s Adam Wharton – the midfielder who has the lot
Who is Adam Wharton?
After rising through the youth ranks at hometown club Blackburn, with whom he had spent his entire career, Wharton established himself as a regular in the first-team following a man-of-the-match performance on his full league debut in a 1-0 win over Lancashire neighbours Blackpool in August 2022.
Blackburn’s manager Jon Dahl Tomasson spoke of how he then removed Wharton, aged just 17 at the time, from the starting XI to help him adapt to being a professional and handle adversity.
Wharton has long since proved his mettle, making 22 appearances in all competitions last season, starting 16 times, scoring two goals and winning the club’s young player of the year award. He has already eclipsed that total in 2023-24, playing in 29 of Blackburn’s 34 matches, starting 25 and again scoring twice.
Tomasson has praised his application and effort.
“He’s a great player but there’s still a lot to learn off the ball,” said Tomasson, a former Newcastle United, AC Milan and Feyenoord forward who won 112 caps for Denmark. “The important thing with Adam is that he’s willing to learn. He’s a positive boy and he’s already developed a lot and he has the mentality to become better every day.
“He’s not the finished article yet but, on the ball, he is Champions League level.”
A month after that senior debut, Wharton was called up by England Under-19s. He played six times for them last season and has since graduated to play twice for the under-20s in this one.
How does he play?
Wharton is a technically minded midfielder, most suited to playing in a defensive role as a No 6 in a double pivot, but also capable of operating as a No 8. He has been compared in style to Danny Murphy, the Palace manager’s former Fulham stalwart, and Yohan Cabaye as a ball-playing, passing midfielder who can also do defensive work.
In a technical sense, there are similarities with new team-mate Will Hughes, particularly when he first broke through at Derby County a decade ago. Wharton would now compete with Hughes, now 28, to slot in alongside Jefferson Lerma.
Wharton is tidy on the ball and displays greater passing variety than Hughes, with composure, poise and excellent technique. Although Wharton has played as a No 10, and can perform there, he is more suited to that defensive-midfield role and could play in a two- or three-man midfield.
His touch map below highlights how he has largely operated from deep this season.
His major attribute is his slick, incisive passing.
“I love rapping passes through to the No 10, so they can turn and drive at the defence — maybe more than a goal or an assist,” Wharton said in an interview with youth football website Scouted.
“When you play deeper you are responsible for more during build-up, which is a different kind of pressure. You need to be brave on the ball, you have to demand it from your centre-halves, but that also means you are pressed more intensely with teams wanting higher turnovers.
“You have to be more progressive in your passing; you can see the pitch from another viewpoint and naturally, that affects the way you play.”
The next graphic shows where Wharton has most frequently played his ‘progressive passes’ (defined as those that travel five yards or more towards the opponent’s goal in open play) this season, with many coming in central areas building up to the edge of the opposition penalty box — the zone where Eze or Olise is likely to be operating for Palace.
Wharton averages 9.3 ‘true tackles’ (the number of tackles won, tackles lost and fouls committed) per 1,000 opposition touches, which is the ninth-highest rate in the Championship, demonstrating his tenacity.
Though he is more than capable of making strong challenges, it is his intelligent reading of the game that stands out more as it allows him to recover the ball through interceptions. His 6.6 ball recoveries per game ranks him 23rd among Championship midfielders this season.
Opta notes that of Championship midfielders with a minimum 10 starts this season, only 12 have averaged more tackles per game than Wharton’s 2.8, and only 22 have made more recoveries.
While that might not suggest any weakness physically, that is the main area in which he can develop, ahead of turning 20 in the summer.
The Athletic has spoken to several people who have observed Wharton’s progress and common observations are his impressive intelligence, the use of his body and how his control and timing on the ball help to mask that relative lack of strength, which can be exposed when tracking back to defend. He can struggle to recover after getting forward and when a game is stretched.
Moving into the Premier League will expose him to a higher tempo of play, too. Adapting to the speed of getting up and down the pitch will be crucial.
But Wharton is still a young player. If he had every attribute covered equally well, the fee would be significantly higher and bigger clubs than Palace would be interested in him.
Given he has made only 51 senior appearances, there should be no expectations that he will immediately slot into Palace’s team every week.
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Where will he fit in at Palace?
Palace’s midfield has been a problem for much of the season, particularly after Cheick Doucoure sustained a long-term Achilles tendon injury in the 2-1 defeat by Luton Town on November 25.
Doucoure and summer signing Lerma started the season well, offering a strong defensive double pivot, but there was a lack of creativity, which put pressure on Eze when fit. Defender Chris Richards has filled in as a midfielder since, with Hughes preferred in recent games because of that tenacity.
But neither has proved to be the answer.
There is no guarantee that Wharton will be either, certainly not in the short term, but he can balance defence and attack and will offer a different profile in Palace’s midfield.
He is far from a direct Doucoure replacement, which chairman Steve Parish and Hodgson both said they were seeking, but as an option from the bench, to rotate, or in particular games, Wharton may help get Palace up the pitch more and provide for their attacking players.
Buying players at mid-season has always been viewed as attracting a premium in terms of price and that is the case here, particularly given Wharton’s recent long-term contract. Young English talent also tends to be more expensive. But Palace are gaining one of the Championship’s brightest prospects.
With a new manager likely next season, to make the most of Wharton’s promise Palace will need to bring someone in who has the trust and willingness to play youngsters.
Wharton, though, looks to be another shrewd Championship acquisition.
(Top photo: Gary Oakley/Getty Images)