At several different junctures, you could have made a convincing case that Christian Pulisic’s move to Chelsea from Borussia Dortmund, agreed to in January 2019 and completed last summer, was a mistake.
Such was the glut of Chelsea wingers and attacking midfielders that it looked unlikely that the Hershey, Pennsylvania, native would even play all that much, in spite of his enormous $73 million price tag. Or so I argued.
Back in the fall, when, sure enough, he had trouble getting onto the field for Chelsea as it rebuilt under first-year manager Frank Lampard, there seemed to be hope that things would improve in the second half of the season, but that expectations should nevertheless remain modest. Or so I argued.
And any notions that Pulisic, who will not turn 22 until September, was a replacement for the departed Eden Hazard felt fanciful to the point of being almost cruel, or at least counterproductive.
Yet his maiden Chelsea season has gone better than anybody could have reasonably expected.
Following his star turn as a second-half substitute in a 5-3 loss to Liverpool on Wednesday, in which the American led a comeback from a 4-1 deficit to 4-3 and within a whisper of a point, Pulisic will finish the season with at least nine league goals and six assists. That’s an impressive haul for any winger, let alone one playing his first campaign in the Premier League, let alone one who has made just 24 appearances, missing two months to injury. It’s also as many league goals as Hazard had in his first year at Stamford Bridge in 2012-13, although the Belgian got 10 more games to do it.
Moments after coming on around the hour mark, Pulisic made an aggressive turn in Liverpool’s half, darted through several defenders and teed up Tammy Abraham for a tap-in goal.
In the 73rd minute, a short while after popping a promising shot just wide, Pulisic brought down a cross, took two settling touches and lashed his shot past helpless Liverpool keeper Alisson. That made it 4-3 and, suddenly, Chelsea had come within a goal of the result it needed to guarantee a Champions League place next season.
Suddenly, Pulisic’s outlook is much improved. Two of his primary competitors for playing time, Pedro and Willian, are likely leaving before the next campaign. And while the arrival of Hakim Ziyech and, possibly, German prodigy Kai Havertz will inject new competition in Pulisic’s positions, he will be considered an established regular now.
Wednesday’s goal-fest at Liverpool only underscored this new reality, even if the already-crowned champions didn’t spend much of the game worrying about the outcome.
In the 23rd minute, Liverpool’s Naby Keita seized on a Willian turnover, loped into a pocket of space and lashed a long shot in off the underside of the bar to open the scoring. A quarter of an hour later, Trent Alexander-Arnold swung a superb free kick over the wall and into the top corner to double the lead.
And before halftime, Georginio Wijnaldum cracked home a loose ball after a corner skipped around in the 6-yard box to make it 3-0.
Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud pulled one back in first-half stoppage time, but when Roberto Firmino nodded home an immaculate Alexander-Arnold cross, somehow his first home goal of the season, the outcome seemed determined.
But that’s when the Pulisic-driven Chelsea surge started, which wasn’t snuffed out until Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put the game out of reach when he finished off a sharp counterattack in the 84th minute.
There was something poetic, you might call it, or ironic, about Pulisic going off against Jurgen Klopp’s side. After all, it was the German manager who had introduced the 16-year-old Pulisic into the first team at Dortmund. It was also Klopp who had reportedly made several attempts to bring Pulisic to Liverpool, before he went to Southwest London in a much richer deal.
Klopp evidently recognized Pulisic as a Premier League difference-maker several years before he arrived in the league. But Pulisic continued to develop in Germany. And as it turns out, he moved to England at the exact right time, and to the right club. He has proved the doubters wrong. He has proved this doubter wrong.
Pulisic is no longer the phenom, he is a fully arrived Premier League star. And, like everything else in his soccer career, he has done it much quicker than a realist might have forecasted.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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