Christian Pulisic will have woken up on Monday morning knowing precisely what awaits him in the Premier League with Chelsea. After a bruising welcome to English football on Sunday as a substitute during Chelsea’s 4-0 defeat at Manchester United, the only positive spin for the United States forward is that the magnitude of his challenge is now crystal clear.
During a 32-minute debut for his new team following his summer arrival from Borussia Dortmund — having spent the last six months of last season on loan at the German club after completing a £57.6m transfer in January — Pulisic was left floored by a Paul Pogba bodycheck and forced to chase lost causes as United raced away to complete their emphatic opening weekend victory.
While manager Frank Lampard made the worst start of any Chelsea boss for over 40 years, Pulisic was given a glimpse of how tough it could be for him to make his name at Stamford Bridge.
The midfielder is expected to make his first competitive start for Chelsea against Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup final in Istanbul on Wednesday and it’s unlikely to get any easier against the European champions. He struggled to make any impact against United’s new right-back, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, at Old Trafford, and he will face another daunting opponent when he comes up against Trent Alexander-Arnold in Turkey.
At 20, Pulisic clearly needs time to adapt to his new surroundings, and under Lampard he will be given that space to acclimatise, develop and realise his undoubted potential. But Pulisic’s biggest problem is one that he cannot control, and that is never a good place to start.
Rightly or wrongly, the young forward will be compared to Eden Hazard whenever he takes to the field as a Chelsea player, which is unfortunate considering that the Belgian almost single-handedly carried the club to two Premier League titles and other major honours during his seven years at the club, prior to his £88.5m summer move to Real Madrid. This is a Chelsea team in clear transition, with a new manager, and already under pressure to deliver; for Pulisic, the challenge feels greater given the price tag and the departure of the Blues’ enigmatic Belgian.
Hazard was Chelsea’s go-to-guy when they needed a moment of inspiration to get the team out of a hole. He didn’t always deliver, but more often than not, he came up with the goods when it mattered. In 245 Premier League games, he scored 85 goals and racked up 54 assists. He also struck fear into opposition defenders and, crucially, gave his teammates the belief that no cause was lost while he was on the pitch.
When Chelsea sealed the deal for Pulisic in January they knew that, barring an unlikely change of heart, Hazard would be leaving for Madrid at the end of the season. With the club being hit by a two-window worldwide transfer ban by FIFA following an investigation into the recruitment of foreign players under the age of 18, Chelsea ensured that they had a replacement for Hazard before their star man headed off to Madrid.
But Pulisic is not there to directly replace Hazard. This is a new Chelsea team going in a new direction rather than one trying to replicate what worked last season but with new players. Pulisic is a young forward with the potential to shine in the Premier League. He is not blessed with the robustness that enabled Hazard to cope with the physical challenge of English football and is still, quite clearly, a talent in the making rather than the finished article.
Of course the comparison to Hazard is inevitable; Chelsea sold a forward (Hazard) for big money and replaced him with another forward (Pulisic) for big money. However, Sunday’s brief cameo at Old Trafford highlighted their differences.
Chelsea were 1-0 down when Pulisic replaced Ross Barkley on 58 minutes, with Lampard deploying the American on the wide left in an effort to put more pressure on United’s back four. Had it been Hazard entering the fray, United would almost certainly have assigned a player to shadow him closely, but they did not make any changes to deal with Pulisic because there was no need. The game quickly passed the U.S. forward by as United upped the tempo and took advantage of Chelsea’s absences — in particular, their best defender, Antonio Rudiger, was out injured — to score three more goals. Pulisic ended the game looking like a man who had just spent half an hour in a washing machine.
Pulisic will feel more at home at Stamford Bridge, where the smaller pitch will enable him to be more effective but he needs to make an early impression on his own terms, for his own sake, to avoid being regarded as a shadow of the man he replaced.
Hazard also had quiet games at Old Trafford, but he made amends soon enough by delivering a big contribution when it mattered. That is Pulisic’s challenge. In a team going through a difficult transition, the American must be allowed to become his own man and make his own impact at Chelsea.