Chelsea: Christian Pulisic and the burden of too much too soon

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 15: Christian Pulisic #10 of the United States dribbles the ball during a CONCACAF Nations League game against Canada at BMO Field on October 15, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 15: Christian Pulisic #10 of the United States dribbles the ball during a CONCACAF Nations League game against Canada at BMO Field on October 15, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) /

Chelsea has not been well regarded by some in the US, but that is only part of the issue. Each time Gregg Berhalter opens his mouth about Christian Pulisic being ready for a “bigger” club, that’s a weight on the American’s shoulders. Each time Alexi Lalas says he’s “outgrown” Chelsea, that’s another. Pulisic has had that burden from the United States since he broke through at Dortmund as a teenager. Others have helped to pick up the load since then, but Pulisic is still bearing the brunt of it.

Chelsea hasn’t helped matters either. Pulisic exploded onto the scene last year in a career year. He was given the sacred 10 shirt and many fans were already talking about him as the legitimate, rather than the de facto, Eden Hazard replacement. For club and country, Pulisic was expected to be the main man.

None of that has happened this season. Injuries have plagued Pulisic, as they did last season. The difference, however, is when he does play he is hardly rewriting the script. He’s been poor more often than he’s shown quality on or off the ball. And each time it looks as though there is a glimmer of light down the tunnel, he gets injured again.

Pulisic is almost expected to come on and change the game now but that’s a hard task for any player. The United States expects it of him, Chelsea obviously does given the number he wears, but he can’t get ahead of his bad form through his injuries. He, like many other young players, is wilting under the pressure placed on him for both reasons he can control and reasons he can’t.

Few players have the pressure placed on them anymore. Pulisic was long expected to carry the United States to the next level, and then Chelsea only built on top of that following his debut season. It would be one thing if he was simply out of form, but his injuries and off the field situations to deal with have seen his burdens increase.

Then there is the competition for spots, made more intense thanks to Thomas Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 formation. If Pulisic is a wingback, he has a ton of competition. If he is an attacker, he has even more. If he can’t stay fit long enough to compete then he falls further down the pecking order. If he can’t perform when he does play, he falls further down still.

So where does Pulisic go from here, with his club minutes hard to come by and his national team spotlight becoming increasingly shared with others? Obviously the first step is that he has to get fit and stay fit. This Covid season is hard on the bodies of everyone but especially an injury prone player like Pulisic. Frank Lampard spoke of a fitness plan for the American, but it didn’t work perfectly. Even if it did, the other side of it is performing well.

Every time Pulisic plays now, he looks as if he’s trying to take the game on alone. That’s a fine trait for in form players but trying to hard is very much a thing for out of form players as well. What might be a killer pass, run, or shot for Pulisic in form is a giveaway out of form.

Matches in cups are great for building moral and confidence back up in these situations. It is what Barnsley was used for in the first match for Kai Havertz and Timo Werner. But those matches are few and far between at the moment. Even if they arrive, Pulisic has to be fit when they do and that’s proven tricky.

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Chelsea has a hellish run from now until the March break. Pulisic might need to use this time to get fit again for the March international break. His last match for the United States was an embarrassing loss to Canada in 2019. That means the last image of him in a USMNT shirt is being subbed off just after an hour, when the game was 0-0, followed by a distraught Pulisic on the bench. If that doesn’t show the burden he has on his shoulders as a US player, nothing will.

If he’s fit, it should be likely that he is called up during the March break. Berhalter has avoided calling Pulisic up often because of injury or because he has looked at other options (and in theory already knows all about Pulisic) but over a year away from the team is too long. Pulisic needs matches to feel confident in his play again. The USMNT might not be the juggernaut that the USWNT is, but they should be able to handle the Republic of Ireland and whoever else they schedule a match against in March. Pulisic can use those matches to build confidence in himself again.

After that? Well that’s tricky. If 3-4-2-1 remains, it becomes hard to see where Pulisic will get enough minutes on his current course. Would he be okay with a loan and would Chelsea even consider that? It’s an interesting question but much like Ruben Loftus-Cheek after his injuries, minutes on the field may be just what the American needs. No one should expect a transfer, at least not at the moment, but Pulisic won’t want to stay past a third injury plagued season or a second out of form season where minutes are scarce. A player only has one career and sometimes a change of scenery is what is required.

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Much has been asked of Pulisic in his young career. Maybe too much and maybe that paints how he is viewed now through his injuries and drop in form. The American might just need a few pressure and burden free games or months to get back to his best. It just remains a question of how.