While Chelsea winger Christian Pulisic was detailing his frustrations to our Joe Prince-Wright near the pitch at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, his manager was unwittingly showcasing why the American 21-year-old is up against it.
An unused sub for fourth time in five matches, Pulisic told NBC Sports Soccer, “It is not going to be easy here, but it was never going to be easy.”
It never was, but it sure has grown even more difficult than anticipated due to Lampard’s unique position.
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Taking over a club on a transfer ban and with a wealth of young English players in the fold, the legendary England midfielder is being lauded at every turn for using those young bucks on the Premier League pitch.
Remember, this has been amongst the top talking points in English football circles for some time, on a much bigger scale than it is in the United States, where analysts and USMNT supporters beg MLS clubs to “play their kids.” Just as New York Red Bulls having success with Academy talent is celebrated here, Chelsea is now challenging for a Top Four place with its youngsters on a globally-lauded scale.
This is a buffet dinner for pro-England pundits who’ve long declared the league a bit too foreign.
For Lampard, one of these youngsters is Mason Mount, who was at his side at Derby County last season as the first-year manager nearly led his team to the Premier League. Mount’s incandescent start to life at Chelsea has Lampard grinning ear-to-ear, likely validating years of, “Well, if I ever manage Chelsea.”
“It is great for the club and a long time coming,” Lampard said after Chelsea beat Brighton 2-0 on Saturday. “The work is done in the academy. The mentality is great. They want to play for this club. At the moment they are earning it and setting a level for others. I have complete confidence in the lads. They are there on merit. Whatever game they take it on board and long may it continue.”
Remember that Lampard’s time with the Three Lions was also a major source of controversy, as managers struggled to find the right fit between him and fellow generational midfielder Steven Gerrard.
Lampard knows what nurturing English talent means to individual clubs as well as the national team. He’s seen rivals Manchester United hailed for always having an Academy graduate in the 18, and heard the criticism of his beloved Chelsea for sending so many young English players on loan. It also probably didn’t help things when he came to MLS and was often criticized for his performances despite metrics saying he was well above average, but that’s a minor qualm.
Then, there’s this:
For me, the most worrying thing about my chat with Christian Pulisic was this 👇
I asked him if Frank Lampard had given him any feedback or specific reasons for lack of playing time: “Not so much” was Pulisic’s answer.
— Joe Prince-Wright (@JPW_NBCSports) September 28, 2019
Not great, Bob. Not great.
Not only is Pulisic behind Mount and wonder boy Callum Hudson-Odoi, he’s also contending with two club heroes. Willian is one appearance away from 300 in a Chelsea shirt, more than a handful of those coming when he was a teammate of his now manager. Pedro was never Lampard’s teammate, but is closing in on 200 appearances in the shirt and has won the league and Europa League.
And here’s the thing, Lampard does rate Pulisic. He just thinks he’s not in the mix yet. The problem is that he sees two other youngsters as very much in the thick of his present and his future.
Lampard has called Mount “the cataylst for us getting in front with his sharpness. He was brilliant for me at Derby. I did not expect this level but he he is improving daily.”
He’s said Hudson-Odoi “can be central to this team and for England.”
Leaving aside Hudson-Odoi, who has just returned from a long-term injury, here are what the numbers say when comparing the other four wingers.
In this small sample size, Lampard is choosing the best producing player in Mount. He has more trust in Willian than Pedro which, while debatable, is at least understandable. And Chelsea is in the midst of an easy stretch of fixtures which won’t demand much chopping and changing if the current first-choice players handle their business.
Pulisic’s career resume and production are far superior to Mount and a notch above Hudson-Odoi, but he’s also the stranger in town and you’d be foolish to say that doesn’t matter. Look at the Chelsea stints of Andre Schurrle and Kevin De Bruyne, the latter of which lasted exactly a half season before a loan to Wolfsburg saw him immediately start to redeliver the goods.
That’s a possibility here, if we’re honest. This could just be a place of good club, decent move, wrong time. If Pulisic had gone to Manchester United, for example, he might’ve seen the same path as Daniel James: An injury to Anthony Martial and non-performing Jesse Lingard opened the door wide for the youngster. At Chelsea he’s in a young team with a lot of good wingers. The good news is that there are a lot of matches through Cups and Europe for him to showcase himself to both Lampard and the world. There could be a quick loan, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world. He’s still the player we’ve seen torture CONCACAF and he’s only going to improve.
Here’s the other thing, though: It’s only been a dozen games and this could simply be down to form. Look at the above stats again; What’s bringing Pulisic down is his giveaways (times dispossessed) and bad controls per game. In the case of the latter, he’s even or better than Pedro and Mount. The difference is that Mount is producing goals.
The other thing is that Lille on Wednesday and Saints next Sunday. His chances will come, though they just won’t be in the quantity or quality (See: Town, Grimsby) as American fans would like. C’est la vie.
It’s also something to keep in mind from those quick to obliterate Pulisic’s move to Chelsea, which came when there was a different manager in charge of the team to boot. This is what happens at top clubs, and is why plenty of magnificent players take time to adapt to a new league, and that’s if they ever do; Henrikh Mkhitaryan had 23 goals and 32 assists in his final season at Dortmund, and combined for 22 and 24 between Arsenal and Manchester United. Just one example, but you get it.
The kid is going to be fine, and there’s a good chance he’ll be fine at Chelsea. But nothing that happens over the next three months is going to stop Pulisic from shining at the USMNT level. Heck, it may lead to a fresh, inspired Pulisic running all over CONCACAF in the Nations League and beyond.
But right now, he needs to weather a storm which is going to blow stronger and harder as a storyline one nation has always wanted runs straight into the one our nation has desperately sought for the United States’ best product yet.