On paper it is among the most ambitious, eye-catching signings in Chelsea’s recent history and yet there is something oddly unsettling about Christian Pulisic’s £58 million transfer from Borussia Dortmund. Chelsea don’t tend to nurture the young footballers that pass through Stamford Bridge, and Pulisic – the slight frame, the hesitant form – already looks like an ex-Chelsea graduate: the kind of player who stumbles from loan move to loan move before skulking away from the club, only to be signed by a Premier League rival for an eight-figure fee a year later.
That won’t be the case with Pulisic, of course, and yet an ignoble exit still feels like an ominous possibilty. Dortmund have long had doubts about Pulisic’s mentality, explaining why Jadon Sancho has usurped him in the starting XI this season, and with such a delicate frame there is genuine concern the Premier League will prove too fierce a battleground for the American. Accusations of frailty, both physical and mental, plagued Alvaro Morata upon his arrival in west London in the summer of 2017. He now looks almost certain to leave before the start of next season.
Pulisic has more time on his side than Morata, theoretically at least, but Stamford Bridge is a cauldron of pressure and expectation. Maurizio Sarri wil be expected to challenge for the 2019/20 title next season and Pulisic, as the third most expensive player in the club’s history, will be expected to hit the ground running – by the fans as much as the board.
Chelsea supporters have already begun to express concers over how Callum Hudson-Odoi will be affected by Pulisic’s arrival, and indeed there is a certain irony in Chelsea investing so heavily in an unfinished product at the expense of a similar type of winger already within their ranks. Fans will understand the significance of this statement signing – not to mention the commercial benefits, with Pulisic the face of football in the US – but like all fanbases they crave the promotion of one of their own.
There is no overt reason to approach Pulisic’s arrival at Stamford Bridge with pessimism, and yet it is difficult to shrug off a doubtful feeling. It is too easy to envisage Pulisic floating at the edges of the team as he struggles with the speed and intensity of the Premier League, the price tag weighing heavy. It is too easy to envisage a managerial change in the next couple of years that sees Chelsea once again lurch in a new tactical direction, leaving Pulisic surplus to requirements, seeking a humbling loan move back to Germany.
Chelsea are unstable and unknowable, their dreadful record developing (and then holding onto) young players provoking a cautious response to what should be exciting news. The cycle of ignoring youth players in pursuit of short-term success (the inevitable result of a high turnover of managers) has to end somewhere. Perhaps Pulisic will turn the tide, either as the first great success – or the final failure.
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