As Chelsea’s summer signing Christian Pulisic turns 21, the winger will be hoping that the opportunities for youth under Frank Lampard are extended to him too. Adam Bate assesses Pulisic’s situation in conversation with former US international Kyle Martino.
After sitting out Chelsea’s 5-2 win over Wolves on Saturday, Christian Pulisic might have expected to be called upon for Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Valencia. Instead, the £58m summer signing from Borussia Dortmund spent his final night before turning 21 sat warming the Stamford Bridge bench in a 1-0 defeat. Happy birthday, Christian.
Given Chelsea’s much-discussed transfer ban, it would have been natural for the only expensive new addition to the squad to be at the forefront of the conversation during the early part of the season. However, Pulisic has made a low-key start to life at the club since being omitted from the starting line-up for the 4-0 opening-day defeat at Manchester United.
He did start each of the next four games – coming up with a couple of assists – but it has been a slow-burn start. Pulisic is still adjusting. Frank Lampard is still searching for the right combinations all over the pitch. Tammy Abraham’s seven goals and Mason Mount’s three have ensured that they have been the ‘new’ players stealing the spotlight.
Kyle Martino, the former United States international turned NBC pundit, has followed Pulisic’s career closely for years and does not anticipate that being too much of a concern for his young compatriot given his reserved nature. Indeed, given the hullabaloo that has greeted his transfer to the Premier League in his homeland, a bit of calm might be needed.
“Every nation has an incredible interest in how their compatriots are doing,” Martino tells Sky Sports. “This move has more implications and more at stake than most. There is a genuine interest here that measures higher on the excitement scale than any American playing abroad ever before. For Christian, I would imagine that has got to wear on him.”
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Martino had the opportunity to catch up with Pulisic just before the start of the season and saw a young man determined to take this chance. “There was a new-kid-at-school quiet about him, getting used to his surroundings. But I also sensed a real anxious athlete ready to get out and perform. He looked calm, confident and ready to let his play do the talking.
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“Remember that this is a player who has played in massive games against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich where he has delivered. This is a very experienced player who was tossed into World Cup qualifying by Bruce Arena and ended up being one of the best performers despite having had no experience with the national team.”
Even so, the occasion of Pulisic’s 21st birthday is a reminder that despite the big fee, and indeed his Champions League experience with Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea have brought in a young player still at the start of his career. He is not a youth-team graduate but he is almost a year younger than Abraham and has only a few short months on Mount.
As a result, he too will need a bit of trust placed in him. Martino is hopeful that Chelsea finally have a manager willing to do that but is urging people not to expect the impossible. “If success is him replacing Eden Hazard then he is not going to succeed because maybe only a handful of players in the world can actually replace Eden Hazard,” he says.
“But he will bring similar qualities. If you watched him for Dortmund, he is more often than not coming from the left with a bit of freedom and that brings a tremendous amount of threat in behind as we saw in pre-season. He is an excellent finisher and he is good with his dribbling at creating space for himself and others. He is cerebral so he reads the game well.
“The physicality of the Premier League will be a learning curve – having to be a bit quicker in getting the ball out from under his feet. He will need to be intelligent in terms of when he takes players on. But I have played with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey and all the best before. He has got the qualities to be an incredible asset to Chelsea in between the lines.”
Pulisic has already matched the total of Premier League starts for Chelsea that Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku managed between them. He is halfway towards Mohamed Salah’s tally of six and despite having to sit out the last two games, there is little reason to think he will not be given the opportunity to overhaul that number before too long.