With a heightened level of expectation comes increased scrutiny, which is something Christian Pulisic is undoubtedly aware of by now.
Every week that goes by that Pulisic remains rooted to Chelsea's bench, more speculation surfaces that he wants out, that the suitors are swirling and that perhaps a long, storied run at Stamford Bridge isn't in the cards after all for the 22-year-old U.S. star. Perception changes quickly.
Just seven months ago, after the Premier League restarted following shutdown, Pulisic wasn't just Chelsea's most impactful player, he was arguably one of the best players in the league. That sentiment was just echoed by Man City left back João Cancelo, who was answering a fan question regarding the most dangerous winger he's faced in the Premier League for Star Sports.
"I usually chat with my colleagues about it," Cancelo said recently in translated Portuguese. "It may sound strange, but for me the most difficult winger I have faced in the Premier League is Pulisic from Chelsea. He is a very skillful and fast player with the ball, with quick dribbles, so for me he is the most difficult winger I have played."
Those attributes haven't suddenly changed. But a knack for injuries coupled with Chelsea's summer spending spree on Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech and a coaching change that hasn't worked toward Pulisic's benefit like most may have expected it to have upped the scrutiny and the stakes.
The facts remain that following his transfer-vindicating breakout last summer, Pulisic has just one goal and one assist in Premier League play and another goal in the Champions League. That represents a significant step backward. The facts also remain that Chelsea spent $73 million to buy Pulisic from Dortmund, and to turn around and sell low, especially when the market has cratered due to the pandemic and while he has three years left on his contract, would be horrible business.
Manager Thomas Tuchel, who gave a teenage Pulisic his first-team debut at Borussia Dortmund, has been asked repeatedly about the Pennsylvania native, and his message has generally remained a constant. Given what he's long known about Pulisic, he can be a tremendous asset off the bench, and given some poor injury luck, other opportunities he may have had to play more couldn't be seized. That the summer signings were going to make it more difficult to remain a lineup staple was always poised to be a factor this season, regardless of whether the manager were Tuchel or Frank Lampard. After all, it's not supposed to be easy to make it at a club like Chelsea, and the constant quest to fight for your place is what hardens players mentally and competitively.
"When you sign and play for Chelsea, it is part of the job description to be patient and impatient at the same time," Tuchel said in his press conference before this weekend's match vs. Leeds United, which Pulisic wound up starting. "Impatient because all of my players are competitors, all of them want to play every single minute. This is what they show every day, the hunger and desire, and this is what Christian shows.
"At the same time, when you are not selected by the coach, you have to also be patient and not lose confidence and keep on going to be ready any time, because it can happen any time. In the beginning, Christian was a bit unlucky because we knew how much of an impact he can have when he comes from the bench, and we used this power and strength from him.
"When it was possible for him to start around the Sheffield United and Barnsley games, he was one game unavailable and the cup game it was a bit too soon. It was a difficult game for him.
"It was not too easy for him, but in the end it is the quality from the players that shines on the pitch and it is also the duty of the players to show up and really earn that they play. This is what Christian does, so it can happen at any minute, any game."
It hasn't helped Pulisic's case that Chelsea is on a roll since Tuchel took charge and that his personnel decisions have been working. The club is unbeaten in 11 matches in all competitions (8-0-3) while putting an emphasis on stifling the opposition (nine clean sheets) instead of blowing it away (no games with more than two goals scored). So for Pulisic, this particular part of his career is remaining diligent, patient, hard-working and sure of himself. He has cut a frustrating figure recently, and to alter that, he requires a breakthrough. But all it takes is a small burst to change the perception quickly the other way.
"If he starts tomorrow, and if he does brilliantly, and if he starts again against Atlético [Madrid in the second leg of the Champions League last 16 next week], and if he scores again two goals, maybe he's the captain next year of our squad," a laughing Tuchel said in response to a hypothetical question regarding Pulisic and a potential desire to leave the club.
"We have so many games, and he is in my plans and he is an important player, and he has the potential to be decisive for us from the bench and as a [starter]. Is it necessary that he can prove it? Yes. So this is my job, and his job is to be ready, to be ready like everybody else, and when it comes the moment you have to be ready. This is what you sign up for in a club like Chelsea. There's no difference between Christian and anybody else."