You could see the look of disappointment on Christian Pulisic’s face as he walked around Old Trafford on Sunday after Chelsea’s 4-0 humbling by Manchester United. He had every reason to be disgusted with how his team fell apart in the second half, but he could also have been excused if deep down he also felt dejected about not being able to do more in his English Premier League debut.
Left out of the starting lineup by Chelsea manager Frank Lampard, Pulisic came on as a 58th-minute substitute with the Blues trailing by a goal, but a pair of goals two-minutes apart shortly after Pulisic’s arrival spoiled any hopes for a storybook substitute’s appearance.
As far as debuts go, Pulisic’s was largely forgettable. Not because he played poorly, but because his team was collapsing around him as he tried to impose himself on the game.
Pulisic completed all 12 passes he attempted, including one that nearly turned into an assist only to have David De Gea deny a shot by Emerson Palmieri. He also completed three successful dribbles out of six attempted, including one that saw him blow by Aaron Wan-Bissaka before Paul Pogba crashed into him with a hard foul.
Pogba knows all about expectations, and what it feels like to exceed them, as well as what it’s like to fall well short of them. Perhaps that knowledge led him to offer Pulisic some words of encouragement after the match. Chances are they included a reminder to not dwell on the loss too long because Sunday was just the first match in what will be a long season.
Nice moment post-match as Pogba stopped Pulisic for some words of encouragement beyond the standard handshake. So along with the beautiful dimes he dropped during the match, Pogba delivers an assist for Chelsea too. #Class pic.twitter.com/JoEuvFWNii
— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) August 11, 2019
American soccer fans surely felt knots in their stomachs when they saw Chelsea’s lineup on Sunday morning, a lineup that didn’t include Pulisic. There was an inevitable sense of panic at the thought that Pulisic might find himself in a situation similar to last season’s at Borussia Dortmund, when he found regular starts tough to come by.
Ultimately, Lampard chose to start Mason Mount rather than Pulisic, giving the Chelsea academy product — who spent a season on loan playing under Lampard at Derby Count last season — the nod in the central playmaker role. That pushed Ross Barkley wide, into the left wing role Pulisic was expected to fill.
Mount held his own, particularly in a first half when you could argue Chelsea was the better team, but Barkley struggled to make an impact on the wing, which led to him being the player sacrificed when Lampard turned to Pulisic.
Lampard clearly rates Mount, and the experience they gained working together at Derby County gives Mount an advantage over Pulisic, at least early on. Though they don’t play the same position, they are indirectly battling for time, along with Barkley, and Willian once he returns from injury.
Pulisic fans who came away from Sunday’s developments worried about his standing should take heart in the fact that Chelsea has invested a lot into Pulisic, and that sizable investment makes him a player the club is going to want to see have his chance in the starting lineup eventually.
Another concern for American soccer fans anxious about Pulisic’s new home is whether Chelsea is destined for a down year. Having sold Eden Hazard, and facing a transfer ban, the Blues are facing a tough road to a top-four finish in the Premier League.
That being said, you can’t look at Sunday’s loss without considering the players Chelsea was missing. N’Golo Kante made a cameo off the bench, but is still working his way back from a knee injury. Antonio Rudiger was sorely missed in central defense on Sunday, and Willian was also sidelined by an injury. Throw in the fact Lampard started Tammy Abraham in place of Olivier Giroud, and Palmieri in place of Marcos Alonso, and you realize that the lineup Chelsea deployed on Sunday could wind up looking very different from the preferred lineup Lampard winds up settling on a month from now.
In other words, don’t go freaking out about Pulisic’s spot on Chelsea’s bench just yet. He may not have had the debut he and his fans were hoping for, but Pulisic didn’t look at all out of place, or overawed by the moment. He looked very much like a player capable of handling himself, and a player determined to succeed.
The storybook Premier League debut may not have happened for Pulisic on Sunday, but there will be more chances for him to shine in the coming weeks and months.