Chelsea have stabilized their form under new manager Thomas Tuchel, who replaced Frank Lampard on Jan. 26. The reworked Blues have been unbeaten since, winning six games and drawing three in all competitions, but much of the positivity has been lacking one person in particular: Christian Pulisic.
The USMNT international, who has battled injuries and form all season long, has only played 192 minutes under Tuchel, despite them having a prior working relationship together at Borussia Dortmund. Pulisic, whose contract runs until 2024, is not thinking of leaving, but on Feb. 19, Tuchel made the bizarre proclamation that “no decisions” have yet been made over the club’s summer business or Pulisic’s status at Stamford Bridge. “He proved in many weeks that he has the level to be a Chelsea regular player, to have a big impact in this club,” Tuchel said. “It’s a challenge now to hold this level, to improve and to maintain the level and keep improving.”
Is it just a symptom of squad rotation and coaching experimentation, or is there something more to Pulisic’s apparent sidelining?
What’s changed for Pulisic since the summer of 2020, when he was one of the best players after Project Restart?
James Olley: There have been two significant factors. Firstly, the hamstring injury suffered in August’s FA Cup final proved difficult one to shake. There were concerns within Chelsea’s medical department over the volume of games Pulisic could handle without risking his body breaking down, which led to a great degree of caution in bringing him back into regular action. Then coach Frank Lampard admitted to ESPN in September that the club were looking at a more specific individual training programme to help ensure more regular availability.
The second factor is Lampard’s departure. A change of manager inevitably leads to a re-examination of the whole squad, and although Tuchel gave Pulisic his debut at Borussia Dortmund, his sparing use of the 22-year-old in his opening nine matches suggests the winger has work to do if he’s to become a key player in the months ahead.
Jeff Carlisle: In a word, health. Granted, the injuries he has suffered tend to be muscle-related (hamstring or calf) but they’ve come with enough frequency over the course of this season to make it difficult for him to enjoy another extended run in the side. There is a knock-on effect to the ailments as well in that his absences have allowed one of his teammates to stake their claim to more consistent playing time.
All that said, Tuchel’s recent choice of formation, whether a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, doesn’t help Pulisic’s cause either in that the use of wingbacks means the American is competing with the likes of Mason Mount, Timo Werner, Tammy Abraham, Olivier Giroud, Kai Havertz and Callum Hudson-Odoi for three attacking spots. The fact that Pulisic has spent time as a false nine recently shows the difficulty his managers have faced in finding a spot for him when playing with three center-backs this season.
This is nothing new, of course. In the moments last season when Lampard opted for three in the back, Pulisic usually ended up on the bench.
Bill Connelly: In one way, not all that much. His shots are of approximately the same quality (0.14 xG per shot this season, 0.15 last season), and his passes are just about as dangerous (0.034 chances per pass this season, 0.045 last). He’s basically just one particularly good performance away from matching last year’s rate stats. That said, he’s not taking as many shots and, obviously, he’s not seeing the minutes. Just as Chelsea added three very expensive attackers, he suffered a series of maladies that kept him out of action. It was already going to be difficult for him to maintain the minutes he was generating post-restart, and then he went and got hurt again.
In that sense, it’s extremely easy to explain how he got here. The question is, what might change moving forward?
Tor-Kristian Karlsen: With Lampard’s exit and Tuchel’s arrival, Chelsea have reintroduced wing-backs and what used to be two pretty wide, generally inverted, wingers are now operating more tucked in towards the middle. This tactical tweak isn’t necessarily a huge problem for Pulisic, as he can master both systems, but it gives Tuchel the option of sticking central attacking midfielders behind the centre-forward rather than the pacey, winger types that were usually favoured by Lampard. Moreover, Hudson-Odoi has found more stability to his game, which makes him more likely for selection and Ziyech is one of the few experienced attacking midfielders in the Chelsea squad and that’s always an argument for being further up in the pecking order of a newly arrived manager, at least during the early stages.
Does Pulisic have a long-term future at Chelsea? Is it worth staying there?
Olley: The high turnover of managers at Chelsea suggests if Pulisic really does fall out of favour under Tuchel, the U.S. international would probably not have to wait longer than a couple of years for a change of boss to reignite his career. After all, he is contracted at Stamford Bridge until 2024. However, the situation is nowhere near that fractious at this formative stage of Tuchel’s tenure.
One thing Pulisic will need to do is find a place in Tuchel’s preferred 3-4-2-1 system, given that he doesn’t project to be a candidate for an adapted wing-back role, as Hudson-Odoi has done, and is not a No.10 in the conventional sense. Tuchel likes two players operating as No. 10s behind a central striker, although it was intriguing that during Sunday’s 0-0 draw against Manchester United, Pulisic was introduced as a split-striker alongside Hakim Ziyech and later fellow substitute Timo Werner.
If Pulisic has ambitions to win Europe’s biggest prizes, Chelsea look well-placed almost regardless of who the manager is. They spent £220 million last summer and are not put off a huge price tag for Dortmund’s Erling Haaland, indicating another spending spree may be on the way.
Carlisle: Pulisic might not have a say in the matter. If he can’t shake the injury bug — and this has been a problem a lot longer than just this season — then at some point, the Chelsea leadership are going to cut their losses and send him somewhere else. The fact that Tuchel knows Pulisic well from their time at Borussia Dortmund is a net positive in that the American isn’t starting from scratch, but that familiarity only goes so far, and there is no chance that that alone will cause Tuchel to cut Pulisic any slack.
On the plus side, in looking at the totality of Pulisic’s time at Stamford Bridge, it’s clear he has the talent to compete in the Premier League when he can stay on the field. That might allow for a bit more patience for a player than there otherwise might be.
Connelly: Someone doesn’t have a long-term future there. There are too many guys who need minutes in too few positions, and some will leave (especially when Roman Abramovich inevitably gives the green light to go get more expensive attackers). It’s tricky for players in that situation — you need status, but you also need minutes, and someone at Chelsea isn’t going to get enough. Situations change as Pulisic well knows, but right now, Captain America falls into that category.
Karlsen: Of course he does! OK, the trend might not be particularly positive for the American, but though he’s been around for ages, he’s still only 22. Young players tend to oscillate more between the highs and lows: it’s part of the normal development curve. Tuchel’s only just arrived at Cobham; he’s still in the phase of testing things out and learning about his players. As he’s coached Pulisic before, he’s clearly aware of his qualities and might give others the nod first to see what they’re capable of before settling on a more fixed system once he’s got the full overview.
Let’s not forget that due to fixture congestion, we’re in a period of heavy rotation. For that reason, it can be especially hard to gauge a manager’s real preferences or strongest 11 against what is a mere product of rotation and fitness considerations.
Don Hutchison ponders potential destinations for Christian Pulisic if the USMNT star leaves Chelsea.
If Chelsea isn’t the place for Pulisic, which clubs and/or managers could make sense in terms of best-fit options?
Olley: This isn’t an area worthy of too much speculation at this stage. Pulisic wants to make a success of himself in England and is a long way from being ready to give up on his Chelsea career. Should Lampard emerge at another top club — although it’s difficult to see that straight away in England, not least because of his strong affiliation to Chelsea — then Pulisic could become a target given he was arguably the Blues’ best player during Project Restart. Any side that utilises conventional wingers would benefit from a fully-fit and firing Pulisic. His task now is to prove himself an adaptable footballer capable of thriving in a different tactical framework, assuming Tuchel perseveres with his current approach.
Carlisle: I’m basing on need and style of the manager, which in my view pretty much eliminates the likes of Manchester City or Bayern Munich. Liverpool would seem to be a good fit given Pulisic’s previous relationship with Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund. The likes of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah are either 30 or rapidly approaching that age, a reality that could give Pulisic a way in.
If you’re looking for an upwardly mobile side, there’s Leicester City, who have a manager in Brendan Rodgers who has always aimed to play expansive football and loves to have his teams create via the wings. Whether Leicester could afford Pulisic or not would be an issue, but at this stage it’s unlikely that Chelsea would get all of its $73m back on a transfer. If the American can be had at a bit of a discount, it might work.
Connelly: We already know that Pulisic has got the quality and aggression to thrive for any number of top German teams (Bayern aside, since they’ve already got about 114 quality wingers and attacking midfielders). If Borussia Dortmund fail to make the Champions League and end up having to sell either Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho or both, he’d be a worthy replacement and no-brainer pick to thrive in Marco Rose’s gorgeous attacking system. Installing him into the Red Bull engine at Leipzig would be fun, too, whether Julian Nagelsmann is still coaching there or not. He’d be super interesting with Adi Hütter and Eintracht Frankfurt, too, if they reach the Champions League and want to shell out some money.
If we’re talking only about the more financially high-upside clubs, however, his passing and energy levels could add a much-needed dynamic at Juventus, where the bulk of their creation has come from either the fullbacks or Alvaro Morata (and they’re still using Aaron Ramsey a lot on the left). And if Nagelsmann were to land a job like Tottenham Hotspur, he could assist pretty well in the identity shift that such a move would bring about. (That’s doubly true if Spurs lose either Son or Kane in the process.)
Karlsen: He could theoretically play for any of the top sides in the Premier League — and I’m sure Klopp or Guardiola would welcome him with open arms, though he’d be subjected to the same rotation regime there, too — but I don’t see any reason why he should be in a hurry to move.
PREDICTION TIME: What should Pulisic do? Stick it out or look for a new club?
Olley: Stay put and see what the rest of this season and the summer holds. Time is on his side and he has proven, albeit only for a few months, that he can be a highly effective player in this division. Chelsea are one of the few clubs insulated from the worst financial effects of COVID-19 and therefore they look the most likely team — along with Manchester United — to bridge the gap to Manchester City and Liverpool in the coming seasons. He would not be short of European suitors should he decide to leave the Premier League but there is undoubtedly a sense he has plenty of unfinished business in west London.
Carlisle: My view is that Pulisic should stick it out. The American can clearly play at this level, and while he’s been short on end product this year, he’s shown he is capable. His contract also has another three-plus years to run, so there’s time to turn things around. But his future with the Blues has to start with him re-establishing his fitness. If he can do that, then he can build his way into getting more consistent playing time, and then use that as a platform to once again becoming the indispensable player he was at the end of the previous season. If not, then Pulisic may be forced to look for another club.
Connelly: Not that it’s totally up to him, but in the short term, sticking it out isn’t exactly the worst option. He should still see bench minutes at the least, and he’s witnessed very clearly in the past eight months just how quickly your status can shift. He’s one injury or one breakout performance away from getting back into heavy rotation, and at 22 he doesn’t have to be in a rush to find his forever home just yet. Of course, if we’re still asking these same questions of him late in August, or when next January’s transfer window opens up, the urge to find a rhythm before the World Cup could be overpowering.
Karlsen: If his situation hasn’t improved by the end of this year, which I’m sure it will have, it’d be time to worry. With the World Cup coming up at the end of next year, the USMNT would obviously want their star player in prime condition. But if we zoom out for a minute, Pulisic is fast approaching his 50th Premier League game for Chelsea with double figures in the goals bank — and that’s in a mere year-and-a-half, amid a very disruptive period. That’s not too bad, is it? I’m quite confident that Pulisic will fast become one of the first names on Tuchel’s team sheet once he’s got a clearer idea of the pros and cons of his squad.