It was the type of run Christian Pulisic has made hundreds of times. The subtle drop of a shoulder, a sharp jink in the other direction losing everyone beyond his own low centre of gravity and the reward of endless space to run into. Little over half-an-hour had passed and the same haring three-point turn that had left Aaron Wan-Bissaka in puffs of smoke seconds into the American’s Premier League arrival had been driven out time and again in Istanbul. This time, though, it profited. Driving directly at Liverpool‘s defence, he encircled five panicked players and split them with a poised ball to Olivier Giroud. Chelsea were 1-0 up and this was the same choreographed play the American has dined out on for years.
This was Pulisic’s first start at Chelsea and, in short glimpses, he displayed the zipping feet and shuffling rhythm that make him, at his best, so unplayable. Moments after setting up Giroud, the 20-year-old left Joe Gomez in a desperate stare as he sprinted down the left wing, cut inside, jigged away from two challenges and drove a low shot back across his body into the bottom corner of the goal, only to be belatedly ruled offside. These are the moments that Pulisic has come to be known by for years, despite his often-overlooked age, and justify his £58m price-tag.
That he possesses such talent has never been in question. Instead, perhaps naively considering he already has a wealth of Champions League-playing experience, it was whether the slighter winger would be able to make a swift adjustment to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. His slimmer frame was occasionally exposed, bundled around by Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk, even shoved to the floor by a brush of the shoulder early in the first half. But the American’s tireless presence in attack but also defence is what was most impressive.
We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.
a day, more exclusives, analysis and extras.
Playing off Olivier Giroud, Pulisic timed his runs inside and repeatedly found space to break at the defence with a tricky directness capable of causing even Van Dijk’s legs to tense. When Chelsea squandered possession, the pressing tactics ingrained at Dortmund helped him to make yards on Mo Salah, even if beginning to wane before he was brought off. Lampard’s decision to withdraw him surely not one of discontent but rather the knowledge of having seen enough to justify a starting place on the weekend and the desire to protect him at this early stage.
Even when stepping into the oversized shoes of Eden Hazard, Pulisic is clearly comfortable with the concept of pressure. He has shouldered it since he was 17, already the face of a zealous nation, and has felt both its giddy highs and mournful lows. He has sat, perhaps reluctantly at times, in the spotlight of being arguably the most talented American footballer of all time, while still so far from his peak. It’s a mantle which leaves room to shine or crumble and little space in between. So, despite his burdensome price-tag, the task isn’t quite as daunting as others may find it. Nor is the expectation at Chelsea quite so fixated on his shoulders. In fact, with Callum Hudson-Odoi returning, Pulisic may even have to be wary of the jilting he suffered after Jadon Sancho’s arrival at Dortmund. But, on the early showings and promise of tonight, perhaps that is the balance of expectation and freedom under which he will best thrive.
2. Olivier Giroud grinds his axe
Olivier Giroud would have been a picture of private disgust when Tammy Abraham was selected ahead of him against Manchester United last weekend. He is, after all, now the only proven and decorated striker in this Chelsea squad and yet there he was, sat sullen on the bench, the moodiest of Chelsea’s teenagers, seemingly a victim of time and Lampard’s turn towards youth.
And, from the opening minute, he thrived off that disgruntlement, barging against the sturdy bricks and sharp elbows of Van Dijk, holding the ball up and breaking Liverpool’s exceedingly high line. It enabled Pulisic and Pedro to whir beyond and drive into the large gaps left by a slightly off-kilter Joel Matip before Giroud reemerged in a familiar poaching position. On one such move, Pulisic wriggled beyond, cut the ball back across and, after already twice threatening goal, found the angle to scythe a shot past Adrian.
It was a deserved reward for his consistent presence and a showing perhaps of the composure Chelsea missed under Abraham. It should also be enough to earn him the first-team spot he felt so aggrieved by losing out on.
3. Kante bluff pays off again
It bore the echoes of Maurizio Sarri’s own coy tactics. The whispers week-long told that N’golo Kante was injured, carrying a muscle strain that’s nagged throughout the summer – just as we were reliably informed in the build-up to the Europa League final. But unlike then, the possibility of playing the crucial midfielder in a match that’s bearing will fade away within a few days seemed a risk Lampard could live without.
Just as in Azerbaijan, he was a somewhat surpise inclusion in the starting line-up and just as he did there in all diminutive glory, Kante danced between the lines, shapeshifting from one end of the field to another in a frenzied scamper that seemed to mark Liverpool’s midfield trio all at once.
After last weekend’s bleak defeat to Manchester United, it is near impossible to overstate the transformative impact Kante can have on Lampard’s team. For all the talk of youth, he is its vanguard; the only player capable of playing conductor and enforcer simultaneously. If the question remained as to how best deploy him after Sarri’s tinkering last season, the result was patently clear tonight. Let him run free, hustling and pressing, cutting and creating, able to impose himself in both defence and attack. There are few, if any, players better in the world at it.
4. Oxlade-Chamberlain returns in anonymity
It’s been a gruelling year for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, painting on a smile from the sidelines, watching as his teammates lifted the Champions League trophy and went toe-to-toe in a gripping and relentless title race.
This was his first start, after a pre-season that has been successful but equally wearying having had such a long time out of the game. And, with the task of breaking into such a dominant front-three still ahead of him, it’s no surprise that Oxlade-Chamberlain suffered under the layer of pressure and desire to impress. In the first-half, as Chelsea imposed their dominance, the 25-year-old was largely anonymous, going without so much as a dribble or a shot. That he was then hooked by Jurgen Klopp at half-time was the evidence that it may yet still take a length of time to readapt after such misfortune.
5. Frappart ‘irrelevant’ but certainly not significant
The notion of a referee receiving any type of ovation has been a long-forgotten concept. However, one of the loudest roars before tonight’s game wasn’t for the furore of fans wearing Egyptian headdresses calling the name of Mohamed Salah, nor those baying to the cultish totem of Van Dijk, but to the stadium’s announcement of Stephanie Frappart.
The French referee became the first female to take charge of a major men’s European game and, as stated by Van Dijk prior to kick-off, “gender is irrelevant when the quality is there”. There was a dubious early handball decision but that lay at the hands of VAR. The penalty awarded against Adrian at first looked extremely harsh but, once reviewed, did show there to be contact.
It may in technical terms be irrelevant in regards to how this match finished, but there’s no doubt this feat was significant and an overdue next step. The Bundesliga already regularly have female officials and, after tonight’s match, the Premier League surely cannot be far behind.