Christian Pulisic is a marvelous talent, an elite attacker with speed and vision and smarts and finishing ability and a huge career ahead of him, at Chelsea or elsewhere. He’s still on track, having just turned 21, to be the best soccer player the United States has ever produced. He might be there already.
So it’s entirely understandable that American fans are disappointed that Pulisic has seen his playing time evaporate with the Blues lately, that they’re frustrated to see him riding the bench after a promising start with one of the world’s preeminent clubs. On Wednesday, they didn’t even get that, as manager Frank Lampard left the attacker out of his squad entirely against French side Lille in the Champions League. It was the fourth time in Chelsea’s last five games that Pulisic didn’t see the field.
Beyond the disappointment and frustration, though, there is a growing idea among Pulisic’s countrymen that their guy is being treated unfairly. That Pulisic’s nationality, or his record $73 million price tag, or something else, has him being held to a different standard by Lampard than Chelsea’s veterans or academy products. There have been suggestions, even among media members, that Pulisic’s main competitors for playing time — fellow midfielders Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Willian and Pedro — haven’t shown that they deserve to be ahead of Pulisic in the pecking order at Stamford Bridge.
Without access to Lampard’s training sessions, it’s impossible to know for sure. We do get to see the games, though. And based on those, it’s hard to argue that Pulisic ought to play more than any of his aforementioned teammates.
Let’s take a look at the numbers. In 441 minutes across all competitions, Pulisic has three assists and no goals. That’s not bad by any means, although it is a slight drop from his production at Borussia Dortmund last season. In 1,701 minutes with BVB in 2018-19, he had four goals and six helpers. Adjusting for strength of league and considering the acclimation process required when joining a new team in a new country, he’s right around where one would have expected.
How does that stack up against his competitors, though? Well, Willian has two goals in 500 minutes, including the game-winner — his second goal in as many games — in Wednesday’s 2-1 victory in France. Mount has three goals and an assist in 779 minutes. Pedro has a goal and a helper in 509, while Hudson-Odoi, who just returned from injury, has a goal and two assists in just 140 minutes so far.
It’s not like Pulisic hasn’t had his chances. He started four games in a row in August. He played well. He just didn’t play quite well enough to force Lampard to keep him on the field ahead of old hands like Willian and Pedro, who offer experience and superior defensive coverage, or Mount or Hudson-Odoi, both of whom are younger than the American and have been with the club for years. That’s how it goes at a place like Chelsea, where there are too many all-world players for too few lineup spots.
“We have to have really strong competition in wide areas and attacking areas,” Lampard told Chelsea TV after Wednesday’s win. “It must be like that, it must be on edge, and I’ve got a few different options in that area.”
When a club spends the amount of money Chelsea did on Pulisic, it expects end product. Pulisic has been a little unlucky on that front. In preseason, he scored two well-taken goals against a Red Bull Salzburg team that nearly shocked European champs Liverpool this week. His fine finish against Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup was cancelled out after video review for offside.
But there’s also been a lack of urgency in Pulisic’s play, a sense that he’s been a little too safe in his decision-making. That changed in the second half of last week’s 7-1 Carabao Cup win over Grimsby Town, when Pulisic seemed to realize that he needed to do more. He went close with a couple of shots but his first Chelsea goal didn’t come.
Still, for the final half-hour of that match, he ran up and down the flanks like a man possessed. That’s what it’s going to take going forward. That’s the way he’s going to have to play whenever his next opportunity arrives.
“It’s not uncommon for a player to take some time to get settled and to adapt — you see a player like Antoine Griezmann at at Barcelona who’s having a difficult time. This happens,” said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, referring to the French World Cup-winning striker that Barca bought from Atletico Madrid for $130 million in July, on a conference call with reporters this week. “We believe that in the long run, [Pulisic] is going to be fine.”
He will, even if Chelsea turns out not to be the right fit down the road. Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah both played sparingly with the Blues before going on to establish themselves as two of the best players in the Premier League with Manchester City and Liverpool, respectively.
There’s an awful lot of season left to be played before anyone can say that Pulisic’s move to London has been a failure. He’s good enough to succeed at Chelsea. But any conspiracy theories or suggestions that Pulisic hasn’t gotten a fair shake so far, or that he’s being overlooked for lesser players, simply don’t line up with the facts.
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