Christian Pulisic is starting to fulfil his promise. After a slow start, the USMNT winger is becoming one of the most dangerous forwards in the Premier League.
Aside from moody coaches and a Russian oligarch, Stamford Bridge is known as a place where young players flop, only to move abroad and hit the top bracket. Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah were benched at Chelsea and never managed to fight their way into the team. Earlier this season a similar fate seemed to befall Christian Pulisic, the most expensive US player in history, whose fall from favour culminated in once being left out of a Champions League match squad.
Bought in January for £58 million from Borussia Dortmund, where he stayed on loan until summer, Pulisic started three of the first four league games under Frank Lampard, but was then frozen out, starting just one of the next nine games, a League Cup tie at home to fourth-tier Grimsby Town. Despite playing the entire match, he failed to score even once in Chelsea’s 7-1 victory. Mason Mount jumped ahead of him in the queue, as did Callum Hudson-Odoi. When Chelsea travelled to Lille in early October, Pulisic was not in the squad. “It hurt not to be there,” he said.
It would’ve made sense if Lampard was particularly fond of Mount, whom he had on loan at Derby last season, or of Hudson-Odoi, an academy product who in September signed a five-year deal worth a reported £120,000 a week to fend off interest from Bayern Munich. Yet Lampard said Pulisic needed to train better and take his chances. When Pulisic got a start at Burnley, it was in part because of a couple of good displays coming off the bench, but also because Hudson-Odoi had started two games in five days and needed a rest.
That game was a big chance for Pulisic to earn a place in the team. Yet what indicated that he had the ability to grasp it?
Certainly not the goalscoring stats. After joining Dortmund as a 16-year-old in February 2015, Pulisic never scored more than four goals in a Bundesliga season before leaving for England. By the time he was 19 and playing for the Dortmund first team, he had become an elusive dribbler, but that did not translate into big chances. The four goals Pulisic scored in 2017–18 were more or less as expected.
The season after, however, Pulisic took big a leap. He refused to sign a new contract and was linked to the Premier League, before the emergence of Jadon Sancho limited his playing time. Yet in the time Pulisic did get on the pitch his xG per 90 minutes soared to an elite level for a winger, 0.38 per 90.
That formed a promising foundation for Pulisic even as he sat on the bench watching Mount and Hudson-Odoi shine. He hadn’t shown it yet at Chelsea, but his time at Dortmund clearly suggested Pulisic had the instincts of a prolific goal scorer. And when Pulisic then struck a hat-trick at Burnley, the underlying numbers suggested that he had the ability to keep scoring over a longer spell. And that he has. By now Pulisic has started eight games in a row and scored six goals over the same period. The underlying numbers have improved since his final campaign at Dortmund. His shots per 90, xG per 90, and xG per shot are all up year over year.
Part of what makes Pulisic so dangerous is his ability to get into good positions in central areas. His main rival on the left wing, Hudson-Odoi, likes to get the ball out wide before taking on defenders. The graphic below shows the passes Hudson-Odoi has received in the league this season.
Pulisic moves in between the lines and into the box far more often. The graphic below shows the passes he has received in his last four league games.
Once Pulisic enters the box, his quick feet and sense of anticipation enable him to unleash a series of high-quality shots. Few wingers post shot maps like this one.
Where do these numbers put Pulisic among the players in the league? Among those who play regularly, he has the sixth-highest open-play xG per 90. The only winger ahead of him is Raheem Sterling. Pulisic is ahead of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Jamie Vardy, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Son Heung-Min.
Pulisic is also sixth in expected assists from open play, with 0.24 per 90. That gives him an expected goal involvement of 0.71 per 90, which is not bad at all for a winger who turned 21 a few months ago. Compare Pulisic with the most productive winger in the league over the last few years and the numbers are actually similar.
Pulisic enjoys a higher status at Chelsea now. He was one of few players who escaped rotation at home to West Ham after the taxing midweek clash at Valencia, and when Chelsea were chasing an equaliser on Saturday, Lampard replaced Olivier Giroud not with Michy Batshuayi, but with Hudson-Odoi, and moved Pulisic up front. He has now said that Pulisic might play as a striker if Tammy Abraham is out for long. If Lampard wants his most dangerous players as close to goal as possible, such a move would make sense.
In any case Pulisic will surely not follow De Bruyne and Salah now. His form would need to decline significantly if he is to lose his place in the team, and he shows no signs of that. Whether he’ll ever be as good as those two remains to be seen, but what is certain is that he has continued his development at Dortmund in the Premier League. Having long been considered a player for the future, Pulisic is turning into a star for the present.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association