When Christian Pulisic agreed to join Chelsea, he knew there would be an adjustment period. A new culture, a new team, all those things would require an adaptation period and patience.
Running parallel to his own journey is a club in transition. If you studied Pulisic’s quotes between January when his £58million move was confirmed, and May when he officially arrived, it paints a clear picture.
The American talked about his excitement at working with Maurizio Sarri and playing alongside Eden Hazard. By mid-June, both had left the club for Juventus and Real Madrid respectively.
Pulisic’s new boss, Frank Lampard, is a club legend. His appointment was encouraged by supporters if only because it came with a tacit understanding that the club’s young players would receive opportunities (in large part due to a transfer ban).
That has, in part, impacted Pulisic’s playing time. The player himself has been public about his frustrating start to life at Chelsea. Lampard has told the player to ‘work harder’ to get into the first team, and while that advice is clear, it is also vague.
It is not untrue to paint the 21-year-old as America’s most exciting player. There have always been high hopes for Pulisic, and he has often delivered for his country.
There is a national pride attached to Pulisic’s achievements, but his situation at Chelsea also unearths a somewhat older wound. Talk about Pulisic often sparks a polarising debate that oscillates between those defending him and those eager to tag him as a marketing ploy — a cheap attempt to break into the American market.
Closer to home, his omission also leads some to debate whether he is judged on that nationality. Tim Ream alluded to that notion during an interview last year with the Times.
“There is a preconceived notion that we don’t know what football is and don’t know how to play," he said. "But when I’m not playing and am in the stands I hear people shouting, ‘Just boot it, just kick it’. Yet people in this country think that’s what Americans do, but they’re just shouting out that that’s what they want players to do. Is there jealousy creeping in as well?”
The idea that Pulisic is not being given a fair shake under Lampard irks some American supporters. It is a consequence of Lampard’s debut season in which he tries to strike a delicate balance. As Andre Villas-Boas learned to his cost, an attempt to instigate drastic change in an established dressing room can quickly win you enemies. Lampard undoubtedly has a more significant standing than the Portuguese did, but he is wise not to make the same mistakes.
A quick scan of Chelsea’s attacking midfielders returns Willian, Pedro, Calum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount and Pulisic. Of that quintet, all bar Pulisic fit into one of two categories. They are established figures at the club that hold influence in the dressing room, or they are exciting young players from the club’s academy. While it may not be palatable, it leaves Pulisic as the obvious odd man out.
Hudson-Odoi was forced to be patient under Sarri, and it seems as if Pulisic will have to do the same. Despite what some may think it has nothing to do with nationality or a perceived lack of quality. Both Willian and Pedro are over 30 and in the final 12 months of their contract. The need to keep them onside while the club transition into a new era is vital.
As the season progresses and games become more frequent, there may be opportunities for Pulisic to shine in European competition or domestic cups. For now, however, it will take a genuinely unbelievable run of form for him to dislodge those around him. That may not seem fair, but it is the situation he has inherited. Given he is 21-years-old, that shouldn’t be of great concern. If he finds himself in this position in 12 months, it will understandably be a more significant concern.
The American had to wait six months for his Chelsea move to be made official, waiting a little longer to try and establish himself should not be a significant concern. And in the meantime, that test will provide him with the chance to answer a question he had at Dortmund.
“How can I become the best?” He told Grant Wahl in Football 2.0. “How can I take a certain aspect of the game and improve that to make myself better overall? Of course, we play because we always love the game. But it’s about figuring out what you need to take that next step. That’s what I think about now.”