There was something fitting about a player as quiet as Christian Pulisic flourishing in a deserted stadium, cutting through the silence at Stamford Bridge on Thursday with a display that ended Manchester City’s title challenge and showed why Chelsea paid Borussia Dortmund £58m last year.
The message was delivered loud and clear as Pulisic skipped round Benjamin Mendy before beating Ederson with a cool finish: this is a young talent intent on shutting down the critics who have questioned him this season.
It was exactly what the 21-year-old needed after his equaliser in the previous game – the comeback victory over Aston Villa – and a good way to respond to Frank Lampard’s demand for more goals from Chelsea’s wide players.
It has not been an easy first year in England for the USA captain, who arrived just as Eden Hazard joined Real Madrid. There have been injuries, spells out of the team and times when his shyness in public has led to doubts over his mentality, creating a perception his personality is unsuited to the top level.
Those who know him see it differently. “Some people mistake him being quiet for him being shy,” Gregg Berhalter, the USA manager, said last October. “But he has this intensity. It’s almost like an acute focus that when he’s on the field there is this sharpness you can appreciate.”
Berhalter’s comments were followed by Pulisic coming off the bench to create Chelsea’s winner at Ajax in the Champions League. At that time there were whispers about the winger’s ability. Pulisic took a while to settle and there was talk the Chelsea coaching staff were not totally sold on him.
There were flashes of class – a hat-trick against Burnley, a positive display against Liverpool in the Super Cup, the cameo against Ajax – but top form was hard to maintain in an inconsistent side. Chelsea, who visit Leicester in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Sunday, struggled at home during the winter and there was another hurdle for Pulisic to overcome when he sustained an adductor injury in January.
By the time the Premier League season resumed Pulisic had not played since the draw with Brighton on New Year’s Day and Chelsea had strengthened during his absence, completing deals to sign RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner and Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech this summer. The competition for places will be fierce next season, especially if Chelsea win the race to sign Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz.
It means Pulisic has returned with plenty to prove. It is not only Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud whose places will be under threat from Werner. The Germany forward can play through the middle but he can also operate from the left flank, which is Pulisic territory.
The early signs are promising. Pulisic came on when Chelsea were losing 1-0 at Villa and equalised five minutes later, turning in César Azpilicueta’s cross. His reward was a start against City, who could not handle his speed.
“He can be a really big player,” Lampard says. “When you look at his age people’s expectations rise and we have to take his age into consideration. But there’s no doubt about the quality. He’s keen to improve and he’s particularly hungry at the minute because he missed some time with his injury.”
Lampard, citing Raheem Sterling, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané as players for Pulisic to emulate, thinks wingers become great when they add goals to their game. Chelsea’s manager does not want them to operate on the margins, content to indulge themselves with flicks and tricks. He was delighted when Callum Hudson-Odoi, another young winger, scored from close range against Burnley in January and he wants Pulisic to keep attacking crosses: the challenge is producing a consistent end product.
“If he wants to learn and if he looks at the players who have made that jump, it’s important he understand the work that needs to be done,” Lampard says. “He definitely has the talent to do that. I’m delighted to have him at the minute, he works hard every day and he has to set his sights as high as he possibly can.”
Pulisic has already shown a healthy appetite for a scruffy goal, breaking into the six-yard box to score against Crystal Palace, Valencia and Watford in November, but the exciting elements of his game clicked beautifully against City. His goal was a brilliant individual effort and he went close to a second after another driving run. The quiet kid is making himself heard.