The Pulisic Paradox – Case of Mistaken Identity?

Since the departure of Eden Hazard to Real Madrid, Chelsea have lacked a true creative focal point in attack as a result. Eden was a playmaker in its true essence; painting beautiful pictures on his canvas (football pitch), his feet being the paintbrush and the ball the paint. Eden’s trademark back flick’s were imperious. Exploited in neat intricate combination play to outwit opposition pressing. Creating opportunities using wide overloads or world class dribbling. With the goals, assist and chances created there no debate Eden is chief creative officer of operations at Stamford Bridge; Garden of Eden. 

With whispers of a move to Spain getting louder there was immense deliberation as to who would be Eden’s heir. Christian Pulisic’s name was mentioned often as his stature and dribbling style drew comparisons from pundits and fans. In 2019 Chelsea signed Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund. After losing his first eleven spot in Germany to a young Jadon Sancho. Aesthetically Pulisic can resemble Hazard at times for instance his ball carrying and dribbling or with his fluctuating ability to create a moment of brilliance. Stylistically I tend to be sceptical of comparisons and perception based on observations. 

First I would like to address the importance of Eden’s role/impact at Chelsea. Breaking down what a playmaker is as that was what made Hazard such an integral catalyst for Chelsea success. 

The Playmaker

Oxford dictionary states; Player in a team game who starts attacks or brings other players on the same side into a position; in which they could score. Playmakers come in various forms but the one that is most important to us is the classic #10. Referred to as the enganche in Argentina, trequartista in Italy and meia-armador/meia-atacante in Brazil.

Classic Examples

Artists who have favoured this style of art over time consist of the likes of Zico, Socrates, Maradona, Riquelme & Ronaldinho. Diego Maradona was a more all rounded playmaker; who produced goals and creativity. Riquelme was a more static build of a playmaker with teammates moving around him while he was the focal point.

Maradona, Ariel Ortega & Riquelme

Traits

  • Dictates tempo: freedom to decide the speed of the game. Making independent decisions to either slow the game down or increase the urgency of the passing.
  • Arrives late in the box: assesses the situation while their teammates surge into the penalty area.
  • Final ball: often looks to make a killer pass into space trying to exploit space behind the opposition defence.
  • Opposite flank switches: tendency to play dangerous cross-field passes when trying to create overloads; and exploiting space that opens up on the opposite flank.
  • Technical ability: possessing high quality range and finesse in actions like a long distanced pass. Not only is passing accuracy needed, but ability to perform the pass simultaneously.
  • Vision: ability to see things on the pitch the average player shouldn’t/can’t. A player with high vision will be able to scan the options around him.
  • Decisions: making the right decisions for a playmaker is understandably very important. Better decision making can lead to better creative results.
  • Composure: ability to not lose the ball under pressure, and you can say this has some relation to decisions/balance. High composure prevents likelihood of poor decision. Good balance allows playmaker to deal with pressure on the ball.

Christian Pulisic

Since his debut (19/20) under Frank Lampard; Christian Pulisic largely favours operating in wide areas. Aiming to drift centrally preferably from the left. His attack heavy mentality often prompts attempts to make runs into the spaces behind opposing defences; whether to directly receive possession or to rotate with a further attacker. That willingness to make those runs creates opportunities to stretch defences.

Pulisic avg positions

When receiving to feet he prefers to drift inside; to either combine with centrally positioned teammates. This allow him to get the ball back in goal scoring positions. Out wide, he doesn’t play like the traditional; touchline hugging winger focused on delivering crosses into the penalty area. Pulisic positions himself in half-spaces to invite the relevant full-back to overlap him. Testing opposition full-back’s desires to vacate position as he risks receiving between the lines, where capable of turning and advancing.

During his debut season Pulisic recorded career high numbers: 11 goals and 10 assists in all competitions. In that period we saw Pulisic perform against the likes of Manchester City, Burnley and Crystal Palace. Performances influenced pundits and former Chelsea coach Frank Lampard; to believe the gap left by Hazard was going to be filled. Alas he has yet to show the ability to sustain such form in the 20/21 and 21/22 seasons. Some argue change in manager/system has seen Pulisic mainly feature as an inside forward, false 9/split striker; sometimes RWB. Some will say it is the limitations and weakness in his game that are becoming glaringly harder to ignore/dismiss. 

stats from the athletic

The praise Pulisic gets in company with comparisons to Eden Hazard raise doubts I have in terms of his quality. His dribbling skills are supposedly exceptional but is an inferior passer of the ball. Rarely breaking down defences with good through balls, nor does Pulisic move above average without the ball.

Pulisic low progression stats

Stefan Reinartz, former Bundesliga player and now founder of a scouting metrics company describes Pulisic’s player profile as special. He said “We usually don’t see players scoring this many goals and creating as many assists as he does without being extraordinarily good at bypassing defenders with killer passes, making deep runs to bypass defenders as a receiver or taking up good positions between the lines to bypass players as a receiver. He’s merely at a reasonable level in all of these departments.”

Pulisic fbref metrics 21/22

This foreshadowed what we had in store. Outside of the inconclusive purple patches Pulisic has shown to lack range and finesse in his passing. Too often his attempts aren’t precise, or he tries to bypass the defence with weird chip passes which rarely work. Although touted to have outstanding technique; his timing, finesse and decision making are scarcely perfect in those situations.

Pulisic fbref metrics 21/22

The particularly worrying aspect for Chelsea is Pulisic’s lack of end product. Already a severe problem for the European giants as a whole. Pulisic has scored 5 goals from 18 appearances for Dortmund 19/20, notching 3 goals and 2 assists across all competitions. The 20-year old has only scored just 12 times in his 107 appearances for the German side.

Pulisic fbref metrics 21/22

End product is a big issue, luckily for him age is on his side. Pulisic’s desire to hold the ball is an issue as he finds himself dispossessed far too often. While the talent is evident, he can be frustrating and inconsistent.

Misconception? 

Myriad’s of fans/pundits are bemused Pulisic has not been adept to replicate form produced impressive performances during project restart. The run that rewarded him with the coveted number 10 jersey. Personally, I was not shocked one bit when the run of games he was heralded for couldn’t be sustained. Those who disagree will ask me how I could tell? It was easy because when I analyse an attacker I look at technical ability; IQ, pace, physical ability and tactical nous. Out of all categories Christian only ticked the technical ability/pace box but even then at an above average level.

When watching Chelsea I question if Pulisic is perplexed by his erratic performances over the last 3 seasons? Pulisic is no longer that teenage sensation who won hearts in Germany; yet his body of work paints a picture of a player who is very inconsistent. What you’d expect of a newly promoted academy prospect. After 3 seasons of watching Captain America I have come to notice his tendency to let games pass him by. Repeatedly his presence becomes non existent; he ghosts so much in possession that it often seems like Chelsea are playing with one less player. Turnovers are frequent due to an obsessive need to take every player on. He dribbles into in dead end alleys costing him and the team any possible chances on goal.

I point to the idea that is synonymous with the man Pulisic was meant to replace. The idea that he is this innovative outlet teams should build around. He’s not that player; far from an ingenious talisman that dictates his team’s attack. I do think Pulisic could become a goal threat as he usually appears most comfortable in central lanes. Looking to combine with quick, passing moves to find a path to goal; rather than selflessly opting to create an opportunity for someone else. Pulisic looks to make runs on the blindside of the full-back; with the aim of receiving a pass from the likes of Jorginho, Kovacic, Thiago Silva and Rudiger. 

Strengths: 

  • Dribbling 
  • Runs in behind the defence 
  • Shooting 
  • Arriving late into the box for a shot 
  • Pace

Weaknesses: 

  • Passing 
  • Duels 
  • Vision 
  • Decision Making
  • Final ball 
  • Injury prone 
  • Ball retention 

Where do we go from here?

In Star Wars Phantom Menace Sabé is the most eminent of Queen Amidala’s royal retinue of handmaidens. During crisis situations, Sabé and Amidala would switch roles. In other words Sabé was disguised as the Queen, while Amidala goes by her less formal name of Padmé Naberrie. When in this role, Sabé and Padmé secretly communicate with subtle signals in order to not divulge their true identities. This fools those who don’t know any better as they are incognizant to the decoy. Christian Pulisic is Sabé and the lazy notion of him being the heir to Hazard’s throne is Amidala.

Sabé disguised as Queen Amidala (in black), Queen Amidala disguised as Padmé Naberrie (in red)

It’s safe to say; ideas of Pulisic succeeding Hazard was more a case of mistaken identity than a prophecy needing to be fulfilled. He is not the player people have broadcasted him to be and that is okay, not everyone needs to be. It’s important for players skillets to be used accordingly; if you want to cultivate a space for them to reach their full potential.

Pulisic could do himself a favour by watching Salah and Mane tapes. Klopp developed them into goal scoring inside forward machines. With his pace, decent dribbling skills and knack for arriving into the box; he could make it his lane if paired with a physical presence and creative force. Pulisic is not a traditional winger who likes to hug the touchline; or to take his fullback to the byline aiming for crossing avenues.

Lampard praising Pulisic

Pulisic feels he is capable of much more. A key motivator in his move to Chelsea was an ambition to prove he could be as important to an elite club as he is for his national side. Frustratingly for Pulisic this does not mirror the kind of trajectory he is on at Stamford Bridge. Something has to give, and it could give this summer. Pulisic will have two years remaining on the contract he signed in January 2019 at the end of this season. As current circumstances any extension appears extremely unlikely. Chelsea value him and history suggests Marina Granovskaia, will be reluctant to sanction a sale for less than the £58 million paid to Dortmund. But injuries and performances may force her hand.

How good was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: