EPL preview: Christian Pulisic, Chelsea's new No. 10, steps into the spotlight

On Wednesday morning, after news had broken that Christian Pulisic would wear the iconic Number 10 shirt for Chelsea this season, the question arrived via text message. Basically it was, is this really a big deal?

It’s just a jersey number, after all. And while Chelsea has had famous 10s before — Joe Cole, Eden Hazard and, most recently, Willian — it doesn’t carry nearly as much significance as, say, the lucky number 7 Manchester United thread worn by all-time greats such as George Best, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Still, it matters because of what it represents.

Pulisic went into last season, his first with the Blues, as an unproven quantity in Premier League. Chelsea had splashed $73 million to sign him away from Borussia Dortmund, but even that price tag — the 37th highest in history — didn’t guarantee Pulisic playing time under new Blues manager Frank Lampard. An adjustment period was expected. Sure enough, it took the then-20-year-old time to settle into life in England’s rough and tumble top flight.

He appeared to struggle with the physicality early on. Pulisic started three of Chelsea’s first four games last term, played well but failed to register a goal or an assist, and was promptly benched by Lampard for the Blues’ next three matches. A month would pass before Pulisic’s next start.

Christian Pulisic is primed for a big season at Chelsea after breaking out this summer. (Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Christian Pulisic is primed for a big season at Chelsea after breaking out this summer. (Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

It was worth the wait. The American scored his first career hat trick in that late October win over Burnley, and kept his spot until the end of 2019, when he was sidelined several months by an adductor injury. Yet he was still not a lock in Lampard’s lineup when the season resumed in June following a three-month shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Once again, Pulisic took full advantage of his next opportunity, coming off the bench in the re-opener and scoring an equalizer against Aston Villa five minutes later. From that moment to the end of the season, he was arguably the best player in the entire Prem, with four goals and five assists in Chelsea’s final nine contests.

Pulisic was given nothing at Chelsea. He earned everything he got. Lampard seemed to prefer Mason Mount to Pulisic early last season, but eventually Pulisic forced his way onto his coach’s team sheet on the strength of his play.

Now he enters his second season as a bonafide star.

While he and everyone else tried early last season to play down the comparisons to Hazard, the player Pulisic replaced after the Belgian winger was sold to Real Madrid, taking the 10 shirt this year is a sign of his growing maturity, a signal that he now welcomes whatever added pressure it might bring.

How that confidence manifests itself on the field remains to be seen. Pulisic is still recovering from the hamstring strain he suffered in last month’s FA Cup final loss to Arsenal, although he could return in time for Chelsea’s opener on Monday at Brighton and Hove Albion.

His exploits during the summer won’t do anything to keep him in Lampard’s plans this campaign; in fact, the competition for spots on the wing will be even fiercer in 2020-21, what with the arrival of fellow attackers Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech this summer.

Still, it’s not just Pulisic’s countrymen who are excited about the heights he’s capable of reaching this season. He has the 10th-best odds with BetMGM to finish as the Premier League’s top scorer, and he’s getting buzz for the 2021 PFA Player of the Year award.

So yes, it’s a big deal that Pulisic will be the first American to wear the sport’s most important shirt number — one synonymous with names like Pele, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi — with one of the world’s leading clubs.

The bigger deal is that he earned it.

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