Christian Pulisic was signed by Chelsea in January 2019 for a reported fee of £58 million. He stayed on loan at Borussia Dortmund for the remainder of the 2018/19 season, and has now arrived at Stamford Bridge and will be available for selection during Chelsea’s pre-season, but how will he fit into his new team and what can he provide?
Pulisic has usually been deployed on the right of an attacking midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation so would not be a direct replacement for Eden Hazard as the Belgian departs for Real Madrid. However, the American can perform well across the final third, including on the left-hand side, and would probably be required to do so due to Chelsea’s current wingers all preferring the right flank.
In contrast to most wide forwards, Pulisic likes to ask for the ball to feet. He drifts away from his position and is eager to be involved in the build-up of attacks, acting as a playmaker rather than running in-behind defences and finishing moves, perhaps providing a reason for his lack of goals at Dortmund, just 19 in total.
In the above image, taken from Dortmund’s emphatic 7-0 win against Nurnberg in the Bundesliga, we can see Pulisic dropping to the halfway line and demanding the ball in order to speed up the transition from the defensive third to the offensive third, despite lining up in his usual right-midfield position. He receives the ball from Manuel Akanji and is instantly on the half turn looking for a way through the opposition midfield.
As soon as he sets the ball out wide to Achraf Hakimi, Pulisic looks over his shoulder and notices the runs by Marco Reus and Max Philipp attracting defenders and creating a large amount of space in the centre of the pitch.
Upon receiving the ball back, Pulisic turns and runs into the space made by his teammates, using his expert dribbling ability to beat two opponents on the way.
Having controlled the move expertly and driven his team into the final third, Pulisic remains composed and has the ability to pick the right pass to match Jacob Bruun Larsen’s run and provide a superb assist.
This phase of play illustrates Pulisic’s confidence in his own ability as he put the team on his shoulders and single-handedly created the goal, despite Larsen receiving most of the plaudits for finishing the move. This is something Hazard was a specialist at, and a quality unknown to most of Chelsea’s squad, so would be a welcomed addition to their system.
As mentioned, dribbling is one of Pulisic’s greatest assets and was in full flow in arguably his greatest individual game of the 2018/19 campaign, Dortmund’s 2-2 draw against Werder Bremen. Only Hazard (4.1) in the Chelsea squad completed more dribbles per game than Pulisic (2.3) this season. Here, we see him pick the ball up just inside the opposing half on the counter attack, a playing style Chelsea are renowned for. Bremen’s defence immediately retreats towards their own goal, leaving a dangerous dribbler of Pulisic’s ability to drive at the backline.
Despite having support alongside him, the American puts trust in his dribbling ability; showing why the Bremen defence was so reluctant to close down the space in front of them. As soon as Milos Veljkovic steps out, Pulisic cheekily slips the ball through the defender’s legs, allowing him to use his blistering pace to break through the middle of the two remaining Bremen defenders and drive at goal.
The finish was equally as slick as the run, again demonstrating his ability to stay composed in the decisive moments of moves, something money cannot buy. The Premier League is an extremely fast-paced division and requires teams to orchestrate deadly counter attacks, particularly at top sides where space is a rarity. Pulisic has proved he can not only partake in counter attacks but also spearhead them, sending fear into defenders in doing so.
A downside to Pulisic’s game, and something that will frustrate Chelsea fans, is his knack of ball watching after playing a pass.
In the above image, Pulisic receives the ball out wide before playing a simple pass inside to Thomas Delaney. Instead of making a darting run towards the six-yard box to offer a through ball, Pulisic does not move, forcing Delaney to whip the ball into the box where his side are outnumbered and contesting with much taller opposition.
This further illustrates his preference to come short and want the ball played to his feet. A top level forward needs to know when to stay and when to go; something Pulisic must add to his profile, particularly if he is to succeed against teams who operate in a low block.
When Pulisic has the ball at his feet, he is not just a player who works well in space. In the Premier League, having the ability to create opportunities in tight spaces, and against compact defences, is integral. Pulisic’s close control is outstanding. Here, we see him receive the ball with his back to goal surrounded by Bremen defenders. He jinks to go one way before chopping with his right foot and sending the defender to the floor, creating an opening for a shot.
So far we have seen elements of Pulisic’s game in all three vertical lines of the pitch: the left, middle and right, displaying his versatility and adaptability.
Finally, we see the American’s creative instinct and ability to make smart decisions off the ball. While Jadon Sancho drives forward with the ball on a fast attacking transition in Dortmund’s 2-0 victory away to Borussia Monchengladbach, Pulisic checks his run to stay with play and remain onside in the half space.
This prevents him from providing too much width and hindering himself once he gets the ball. Providing teammates with intelligent runs in transition is an element of Pulisic’s game that would please Maurizio Sarri in particular, but also whoever is in charge of the Blues next season.
As we can see above, Pulisic finds himself in a good shooting position from Sancho’s pass. The majority of forwards in this situation would shoot low and hard across goal, an option that would lead to personal glory, but Pulisic’s instinctive creative nous means he drills the ball across the box to Reus for a tap in which ultimately seals the game.
For Pulisic, the high percentage chance for Reus outweighs any risk of going for goal himself, and is a reason why Dortmund outperformed their Bundesliga xG by 16 in the 2018/19 campaign; only Strasbourg (17.41) fared better in Europe’s top five leagues.
Most systems nowadays depend on high percentage opportunities and players who sacrifice self accolades for the good of the team. Because of this, Pulisic defines the modern day footballer and would easily slot into the majority of teams’ setups.
Pulisic is a versatile wide player/attacking midfielder hybrid and is usually reluctant to make runs off the ball. Being more comfortable with having the ball at his feet has its advantages, and it certainly complements Pulisic’s creative and direct attributes, but if he is going to contribute to replacing Hazard’s goals then he must be more willing to work for the team off the ball.
There are elements of Pulisic’s game that can be improved, just like any player, but with the American only being 20-years-old, time is on his side. His expert dribbling ability paired with his risk-free and creative playing style would benefit any team, and his versatility is more sought after in the modern game than ever before.
The youngster seems to already have the talent to master the Premier League. If his manager next season can use him to the best of his ability then Chelsea have a superstar on their hands, for the present and the future.
Written by Liam Wilson.