Christian Pulisic hasn’t been granted as much time as others to make his mark at Chelsea, but he’s striving to do all he can with the minutes afforded to him.
The American might well have expected a tougher route to the first team when the Blues changed manager after he signed but before he played, but he has had to be even more patient than he would have anticipated.
After three league starts in August, he has been pushed to the sidelines, playing just 10 top-flight minutes since. However, he wasn’t going to put those few minutes to waste.
“He’s just turned 21 so I think, if anyone is getting too excited about this, they should calm down,” Chelsea manager Frank Lampard said ahead of Sunday’s trip to Southampton.
However, if we weren’t supposed to get excited about Pulisic’s cameo, someone should have passed on that information to the man himself.
The volume of chat about the winger from an expectant American media can feel overwhelming at times, but it’s understandable: having broken through for Borussia Dortmund and for his country at 17, visibly thriving on merit rather than simply being good for an American soccer player, it’s easy to see why so many rushed to praise him, as if his entire existence acted as a media scrum.
We probably ought to be grateful, then, that the Southampton game let Pulisic show his ability to thrive even when surrounded by so many bodies it should be barely possible for him to even move.
As he receives the ball from Michy Batshuayi, Pulisic is, we’ll admit, under minimal pressure. Nevertheless, it would be easy for him to internalise the pressure of the wider situation of his Chelsea career and panic.
With only a couple of minutes left of his first league outing in a month, Pulisic might be forgiven for letting the weight of this being His One Chance weigh too heavily. After all, who knows when Lampard will next decide to give him the charity of a 10-minute runout.
One moment of panic, one attempt to do too much, to use a power drive when a feather touch is required, and the next opportunity could be anything from a week to another month away.
Yet he doesn’t panic. His mind’s eye is fixed on Batshuayi from the get-go, and then as Jan Bednarek steps to him, the opening snaps shut like the mouth of a venus fly trap.
Those who see themselves as covering defenders in this situation are mere window dressing: they’re blocking off a path which was never in Pulisic’s plan to utilise, and his greatest trick is convincing them the job they are doing has any bearing on the reality of the situation.
In reality, they are akin to the Belgian defenders approaching Diego Maradona in 1982 or the Croatian’s surrounding Andrés Iniesta in a similarly iconic photo 30 years later: whether or not they realise it at the time, they are just pawns in a bigger game. Their actions – and even their identities – are irrelevant.
It’s no coincidence that Batshuayi was the man on the end of the assist. The Belgian linked up brilliantly with Pulisic when the pair were briefly together at Borussia Dortmund, and that kind of telepathy is exactly what you need when time is limited.
One less second to guess and second-guess a team-mate’s intentions can be enough to throw you into self-doubt and torpedo the best of intentions. However, the strain of only getting one shot at getting it right feels less wrought with pressure when it’s a shot you’ve made countless times before with the same target.
And that’s before you get to the matter of feeling supremely confident that the chance will be converted: people don’t remember the destructive pass if there isn’t a goal at the end of it.
Pulisic knew what he was going to do the moment he received the ball on the edge of Southampton’s area: the only question mark was over when he was going to pull the trigger. The defenders are there in body, but they’re watching their spirits get broken in real-time, subconsciously anaesthetising themselves so the needle feels less sharp.
If this is what Christian Pulisic can do in a 10-minute cameo, we can’t wait to see what he can produce once he’s really up to speed.
By Tom Victor