One required some tough love. The other needed a new coach and his fresh set of ideas.
It took a while for Christian Pulisic and Mateo Kovacic to establish themselves at Chelsea, prompting doubts about the wisdom of their recent big-money arrivals.
Now they’re in the team, there appears to be little chance of them leaving it.
Pulisic is the 21-year-old American winger who joined from Borussia Dortmund in the offseason as a marquee $73 million signing but didn’t start a match of any significance for Chelsea in September or nearly all of October. Quite simply, Frank Lampard did not think Pulisic was showing enough in training — quite a damning assessment for a young player in a new country to digest.
Somewhat out of the blue, Pulisic was recalled for a seemingly awkward-looking English Premier League match at Burnley on Oct. 26, he scored a “perfect” hat trick — featuring goals with his left foot, right foot, head — and hasn’t looked back. His goal against Valencia in the 2-2 draw in the Champions League on Wednesday continued his rich vein of scoring form, with six goals in Chelsea’s last seven games, all of which he has started.
Kovacic is the box-to-box central midfielder from Croatia who also arrived at the club on a permanent basis in the offseason, after an underwhelming loan spell in the 2018-19 campaign under Chelsea’s former coach, Mauricio Sarri.
Many would have questioned why Chelsea spent a reported 40 million pounds on a player who delivered few performances of note last season, but he has grown in stature since Lampard took charge.
Over the past month, he has been Chelsea’s best player; his energy, ball circulation and pressing standing out and diminishing the impact of the recent absence of star midfielder N’Golo Kante. To top it off, Kovacic marked his 71st appearance for Chelsea with his first goal for the club against Valencia this week.
“It’s a project for me, for him, and for the whole staff, to get him more goals,” Lampard said about Kovacic.
In truth, it’s the only thing missing in his armory at the moment.
With Pulisic and Kovacic making themselves virtually undroppable at the moment, Lampard has a headache — albeit one he is probably happy to have.
Suddenly, Callum Hudson-Odoi — regarded by some as the brightest young talent at Chelsea, perhaps even in English soccer — cannot get a start, since he is a rival of Pulisic for the left-wing berth.
Then, in midfield, who of Kante, Kovacic, and Jorginho does Lampard drop now all three are fit and available? Does he even have to drop any of them?
There isn’t a genuine playmaker in that trio — Mason Mount is a more attacking, creative central-midfield option in the squad — but Lampard has gone with the hard-working Kovacic-Jorginho-Kante axis for two tough away games over the past week, at Manchester City and Valencia.
For home games against weaker opposition, such as for example out-of-form West Ham in the league on Saturday, Lampard will likely play Mount to give the team some more vision from deep.
It will be tough on Kovacic if he loses his place, perhaps knocking his confidence now he is playing the best football of his career. He attributes his improvement in form to Lampard giving him more freedom to take the ball forward and influence play, compared to what he was asked to do by Sarri, and to feeling more at home at Chelsea now he is no longer a loanee.
Similarly, can Lampard even countenance dropping Pulisic despite Chelsea, and every other Premier League team, facing three games in the space of seven or eight days starting on Saturday?
According to the league’s official statistics supplier, Opta, Pulisic has scored as many goals in his last seven club games as he managed in the previous 36, which takes in the end of his four-year spell at Dortmund.
Hudson-Odoi has missed Chelsea’s two games since the last international break because of a hamstring injury, meaning Pulisic has been even more assured of his starting place in spite of missing the recent U.S. matches against Canada and Cuba with a hip injury.
With Chelsea’s young brigade of Tammy Abraham, Mount, and Fikayo Tomori excelling under the guidance of Lampard, and now Pulisic and Kovacic really blossoming, Chelsea has a depth of quality in its squad few would have foreseen after the club was placed under a two-window transfer embargo by FIFA.
In a time of supposed adversity, Chelsea suddenly has unexpected strength.
Pulisic and Kovacic, who showed patience and determination when the going got tough, are the personification of that.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80