The question of what to expect from Christian Pulisic at Chelsea this season extends to his entire club. On Sunday, the American, four days after his 21st birthday, didn’t see the field in his third straight Blues game even though he is fully fit. And that strange, rasping sound you heard around lunchtime was that of a nation of soccer fans wringing its hands.
When he joined Chelsea from Borussia Dortmund in January – only to be loaned back for the remainder of the season – the most pressing matter was how much he would actually get to play there. Chelsea has churned through young talent since the day it first got rich, when Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003. The list of future superstars who didn’t make it in West London is lengthy – Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, and on and on.
But then it turned out Chelsea would be under a transfer ban when Pulisic arrived in full, and the club would undertake its first true rebuilding project in the time that it’s had the luxury to actually rebuild. New manager Frank Lampard was said to be high on Pulisic. And he played much and well in his first few games in charge. And now Pulisic has suddenly stopped playing at all.
Which further complicates the setting of realistic expectations. For Pulisic. For Chelsea. For Lampard.
Under normal circumstances, regular minutes and perhaps a handful of goals and assists would have been a nice return for Pulisic, given his precocity, combined with his transfer fee – which was record-shattering for an American but hardly an outlier for Chelsea, especially in this hyper-inflated transfer market.
But there was almost no chance of Chelsea competing for the title. Lampard would be given time to figure out what to do with all those young players he had to press into first-team service, as the team’s central player, Eden Hazard, left for Real Madrid. He’d get room to rethink things. If he made the Champions League, that would be lovely, but even the club and its trigger-fingered president Abramovich were surely cognizant that this might well prove a stretch.
There was a great irony, of course, in Chelsea being forced to play with the young players it had always ignored in favor of chasing trophies with veterans, because it had violated rules concerning the signing of those young players. After not having any use for these terrific prospects in all these years, but incurring a two-window transfer ban in the pursuit of them regardless, it now has no choice but to play them as many of its veterans left or begin to decline.
At any rate, it was a volatile situation for Pulisic to wind up in: a transitional time of fluid expectations and opportunities for all manner of young players, not just the expensive ones.
And now he’s on the sidelines, while others like Mason Mount establish themselves. For a third straight game, Lampard opted for Mount and Willian as his wingers. Pulisic never subbed on in any of those games, although two early injuries didn’t help on Sunday.
It’s hard to work out how Sunday’s 2-1 home loss to Liverpool disrupts this new balance, if at all. Liverpool strolled to a 2-0 lead by halftime, but Chelsea was hardly dominated by the European champions. While the Reds scored both their goals on set pieces, the Blues probably had the better of the chances, not to mention a disallowed goal and a one-on-one look for 21-year-old striking sensation Tammy Abraham – who looked off a wide-open Mount to his left for the tap-in – in the first half.
In the second act, N’Golo Kante scored a world-class goal on a dribble through the heart of a slow-reacting Liverpool defense. And substitute Michy Batshuayi and Mount had great looks for the equalizer.
All the same, Chelsea lost its second game in a row. And it now has just two wins from its eight competitive games so far this season. The difference was between the European champion and a new, young team playing under a new, young manager. The difference between a team drilled in the finer points of Jurgen Klopp’s system for going on four years now, with very little player turnover, and a team in total rebuilding mode and hampered by a transfer ban.
And in that rebuilding will lay plenty more opportunities yet. Lampard is working with a thin squad, playing on four fronts. A challenging Champions League group stage draw with Ajax, Lille and Valencia – which beat Chelsea 1-0 away on Tuesday – will further drain energy. Meanwhile, Willian and fellow winger Pedro are 31 and 32, respectively, and both have fallen off considerably in the last few seasons.
Lampard will shuffle his lineups frequently. And occasionally, he will feel that his veterans are the safer bet. Pulisic may not be playing now. But he’ll get on the field lots more this season.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
More from Yahoo Sports: