Christian Pulisic’s trials and travails at Chelsea have been well documented. Over-documented, in truth. As the first male American outfield player to join one of the traditional Premier League powerhouses, every move he makes is heavily scrutinised. There’s a desperation for him to succeed at Stamford Bridge, and that desperation can turn into hysteria. It can’t be easy being the focus of an entire country’s footballing hopes.
With Pulisic, every minute he does or doesn’t get on the pitch matters in a way it doesn’t for any of his teammates, even the collection of Chelsea youngsters who make up a significant portion of England’s future. If Mason Mount fails to realise his potential, there’s always Phil Foden, after all. If Pulisic doesn’t, there’s no credible heir to his place in the USMNT.
As a result, the up-and-down start to his career at Chelsea has therefore been amplified into a rollercoaster. Frank Lampard has refused to install Pulisic as a first-choice starter, leaving him mostly as a bench option (and, in one case, leaving him out of a Champions League squad entirely). And it’s hard to be a footballing messiah without getting playing time.
Lost, perhaps, in the angst over whether Pulisic should be starting is the impact he’s been making off the bench. In the Blues’ last three games — wins against Southampton, Newcastle and, most importantly, away at Ajax — the 21-year-old has left his mark. Against the Saints, with the game admittedly already wrapped up, he produced a magnificent assist for Michy Batshuayi, sucking in three defenders before slipping the striker in on goal. That sort of work in a cameo was good enough to get him more significant minutes in Chelsea’s later outings. And with both games on the line, Pulisic has made a difference.
He entered the Newcastle match with about half hour to play, coming on for Mount with the score still locked at 0-0. Chelsea had threatened in fits and starts, with Mount testing Martin Dúbravka early in the first half, but Newcastle were set up to defend and frustrate, and had succeeded. Pulisic’s introduction caved them in. Within minutes, the American had the game’s best chance, collecting a deflected shot from Callum Hudson-Odoi only to be denied by a fine save. And minutes after that, Chelsea had their breakthrough.
On the scoresheet, it was a Marcos Alonso goal, Hudson-Odoi assist. But Pulisic made a major contribution to the winner, driving into the Newcastle area, sucking the defence over to the right side before making a sharp lateral pass which freed up Hudson-Odoi and Alonso on the left. USA teammate DeAndre Yedlin then denied him an actual assist when he put in a superhuman block on Tammy Abraham.
Newcastle were unable to cope with Pulisic. And neither were Ajax. The 2019 Champions League semifinalists were, like the Magpies, holding Chelsea to a 0-0 draw. But unlike against Newcastle, Chelsea weren’t getting nearly enough traction in the final third, holding off their hosts rather than dominating them. That all changed when Pulisic came on for Willian.
In 24 minutes, Pulisic created the only two clear chances of the whole match. The first, perhaps, came with a stroke of good fortune — after driving at the Ajax defence, his long-range shot deflected to Batshuayi, who missed a straightforward goal. But there was nothing unearned about what ultimately turned out to be the winning goal.
It wasn’t the sexiest cutback (Batshuayi’s finish, on the other hand, was a thing of raw beauty). But Pulisic did what Willian could not. He pushed Ajax’s defence into their own area, unsettled them, and created the space for his teammates to work in. The assist was a fitting reward for the injection of quality his introduction had given the Blues.
Even after the goal, he continued to do fine work, helping to pin Ajax in their own half as Chelsea saw out a key European win. Pulisic’s performance was key to setting the Blues back on track for Champions League qualification, and Lampard was effusive in his praise for the young American:
You have to give Christian huge credit because he looked so lively when he came on and the assist is just as important as the finish. The fact that a substitute scored makes me so happy because it’s not easy when you’re picking a similar team every week.
I’ve tried to shut my ears to a lot of the outside talk because there’s a lot said. I understand his quality, his young age and the fact it’s a big move for him. He wants to know what I want from him, what the Premier League is like and that’s not always an easy ride but we’ve stayed calm and kept looking at the big picture.
Lampard’s allusion to the controversy that’s surrounded Pulisic — “there’s a lot said” — was a typical understatement. But the scrutiny (and the reaction to that scrutiny) has been foamy enough to distract from what actually matters: his performance.
Pulisic, Super Cup goal aside, had struggled to settle in at Chelsea. This should not have come as a surprise. Despite his price tag, he ought to be considered part of the youth movement at Stamford Bridge: he’s younger than both Abraham and Fikayo Tomori, and only a few months older than Mount. The reasonable expectation should have been for an extended settling in period.
And even though Pulisic hasn’t been given the doubt of reasonable expectations, that period seems to be coming to a close. His performances have improved and are still improving, and he’s starting to become a major factor in some of Chelsea’s key wins. If he keeps this up, the furore over his early months at the club will fade away, and fast.