This season cannot be going the way Christian Pulisic would’ve hoped. After a promising start to his Chelsea tenure, the American phenom’s status on the team took a nosedive. At its lowest point, Pulisic dropped from being a regular starter to arguably being the fifth winger on the roster, an often unused substitute that was sometimes not even given a spot on the bench. Since then, Pulisic has enjoyed a something of a resurgence as the Blues’ designated super-sub. And while his current role might not be what he and his legion of American fans had hoped for coming into the season, at this stage of his career, Pulisic’s place is just fine.
In retrospect, American fans anxious to see Pulisic’s star continue to rise were a little over-eager about the former wonderteen’s start to life in England. New Chelsea manager Frank Lampard threw Pulisic right into the thick of things almost immediately, and Pulisic proved he could hang. Of Chelsea’s first five games this season (four Premier League matches and one UEFA Super Cup), Pulisic played in all of them and was a starter in four. The winger had a couple good showings—most notably in the Super Cup, where he nabbed an assist and had a fantastic goal disallowed—during that span, but also some relatively anonymous ones. Even more importantly, Chelsea as a whole struggled, winning only one match of the five.
That Lampard felt the need to make some changes, and that those changes included downgrading Pulisic’s role, was no surprise. More alarming was just how far down the depth chart Lampard ultimately shoved his expensive new winger.
Again, in hindsight, this shouldn’t have come as a huge shock. Pulisic’s steady flow of starts during the first month of the season said more about Chelsea’s injury and fatigue situation than it did about Pulisic’s place as a key member of the team. Sure enough, as Mason Mount continued scoring, and Callum Hudson-Odoi recovered from his Achilles injury, and Willian got the rest he needed after a long summer with Brazil at the Copa América, Pulisic quickly found himself behind each of those three guys for playing time. When Lampard even started picking Pedro over Pulisic, things really did look grim. After playing in all of Chelsea’s August matches, Pulisic appeared in only one of the club’s five matches in September—the one being a start in the League Cup against fourth-tier Grimsby Town.
Thankfully, October has been a time of redemption. Since getting left out of the 18-man gameday squad for Chelsea’s Champions League match against Lille at the start of the month, Pulisic played—and played well—in all three of the Blues’ subsequent matches. First, the American made a brief 10-minute cameo in a match against Southampton, where he picked up a late assist. Then, he came on for about half an hour during a tied match against Newcastle, and was at the heart of the move that eventually culminated in the winning goal:
Most impressively, Pulisic was again the game-changing substitute against Ajax in the Champions League on Wednesday, entering the match and immediately becoming Chelsea’s most dangerous player, this time directly involved in the winning goal with an assist:
As distressing as it has been watching our poor sweet wonderman suffer at the hands of a dickhead boss (okay, that’s just frustration talking, Lamps is good) who prefers giving all the minutes to a clown-ass teacher’s pet like Mason Mount (also frustration speaking ...... mostly), Pulisic’s situation at Chelsea, even during the worst times, has never been all that concerning. It is now clear: If Pulisic is to become a star at Chelsea, he is going to have to earn it. Lampard has too many good options on the wings to just hand Pulisic start after start in hopes that he eventually comes good. Pulisic will have to fight for his playing time the same as Mount and Hudson-Odoi and Willian, and only his performances, not his transfer fee, will get him a spot on the pitch.
All of that is actively good. Not only is it good that nothing will be handed to Pulisic, it’s also totally fine if his current status on the roster is as a rotation option and super-sub. Let’s not forget, this guy is only 21 years old, is playing his first year in the sport’s toughest league, and is coming off the most disappointing season of his young career. Being the fourth option for one of three positions in the starting lineup means Pulisic will be in line for plenty of starts and substitute appearances over the long season. And because of Pulisic’s deadly combination of speed, dribbling, creativity, accurate crossing, and versatility, he has everything it takes to thrive coming off the bench. Good performances as a substitute and in spot starts will earn him more and more playing time, which in turn will let him continue showing his skills and growing as a player and eventually maybe solidify a more permanent place in the starting XI.
The point here is that Pulisic will get his chances to prove himself. There’s more than enough playing time to go around, and if he keeps doing what he’s been doing lately, he’ll eat his fair share. Pulisic’s potential ascent to true stardom might not have started as smoothly or rapidly as his most hopeful compatriots would’ve wanted, but the journey isn’t possible without experiencing a few bumps along the way. And so far, none of the turmoil has been anything Pulisic can’t handle.