The American is fast becoming the player Chelsea hoped they were buying.
By Dante Boffa
The defining theme of Chelsea Football Club this season has been youth. Club legend Frank Lampard was recruited as manager and prepared to make a wholesale commitment to the young talent brewing in the club’s youth setup. Operating under a FIFA-imposed transfer ban, the club had no choice but to turn to the youth ranks to bolster the Europa-winning side from 2018/19.
Chelsea has a long history of dominance at the youth level, with potential stars churned out every year. The club simultaneously has a long history of not offering first-team chances to aforementioned young stars, but this season has been a different story. Tammy Abraham, Reece James and Mason Mount were all recalled from loan spells and have been first-team regulars this year. Abraham has netted 14 league goals and Mount has made more league appearances than any outfield player other than club captain Cesar Azpilicueta. James and electric winger Callum Hudson-Odoi have also featured heavily at times, with Scottish midfielder Billy Gilmour recently cementing his place in the side. The one thing these players have in common is their emergence through the Chelsea youth system. There’s one exception, however, to the homegrown movement that’s gripped the club – Christian Pulisic.
The American winger was signed from Borussia Dortmund for the princely sum of €64 million and was expected to make a big impact from day one. He struggled early in the campaign, however, and aside from an impressive three-game stretch where he scored five goals, he was largely a non-factor in the first half of the season. A quad injury forced him out of the squad from December to March, and it looked as if his maiden season in English football would end in disappointment.
However, the suspension of the season allowed him to get healthy, and since the restart, he’s been rejuvenated, playing the best football of his young career. In fact, he’s been one of the best players in the Premier League since football returned.
In seven games he’s scored three goals, tallied three assists and drawn two penalties, both of which were converted by Willian. Pulisic came on as a sub in the first game back against Aston Villa, propelling Chelsea from a goal behind to comfortable winners. He’s been talismanic in the four games since, notching a brilliant solo goal against Manchester City, rifling one home with his left boot against Crystal Palace and generally bobbing and weaving his way through any defence he’s faced.
The biggest difference in Pulisic’s game since the restart – inclusive of his impressive performance in a 1-0 FA Cup win against Leicester City – is his dribbling. Earlier in the season, he was content to rely solely on his speed, racing down the touchline and whipping balls in or laying off for fullback Marcos Alonso to swing a ball into the area. Now, he’s much more comfortable driving to the inside from his left-wing position. Slaloming runs and nifty close-control are a developed component of his new arsenal and are a large of his recent success.
Pulisic has shown that he’s a catalyst, breaking games open against City and Villa with smart movement and excellent pace. He has predominantly played wide left since the restart but has drifted across the middle and even swapped wings with Willian for a half against Watford. This versatility is emblematic of his recent development. Where before he was a one-trick pony, now he offers a more diverse threat. Frank Lampard has downplayed comparisons to former Chelsea icon Eden Hazard, but it is an apt one. Pulisic has been playing downhill, darting into open spaces and squirming past defenders with the ball at his feet, creating chances for teammates and drawing fouls in dangerous areas. One can’t help but think of Hazard’s monumental solo efforts against West Ham and Liverpool in his last season wearing a blue shirt.
In the span of a few weeks, Pulisic has cemented his spot as Chelsea’s first-choice left-winger next season, made veteran stalwart Pedro expendable and relegated Hudson-Odoi to the bench. Chelsea has several big-money attacking talents arriving next season, with Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech confirmed and Leverkusen star Kai Havertz heavily linked to the club. Pulisic should fit well with his new teammates; Werner can play in behind Olivier Giroud or Abraham or outright replace them and Ziyech looks set to take Willian’s spot on the right-wing. Should Havertz arrive, he’ll join Mason Mount and N’Golo Kante in midfield. That attacking line-up reads like something of a who’s who in continental football this season, but this recent run of form from Pulisic has proven he can be included in such rarefied air. His continued form will be crucial to Chelsea’s fight for Champions League football next season, and should the Blues hold on to their top-four spot in the Premier League, Pulisic will have a golden opportunity to prove himself against the world’s best in 2021.