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Christian Pulisic Gets Back On Track

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: Christian Pulisic of Chelsea celebrates after scoring their team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League Round Of Sixteen Leg One match between Chelsea FC and Lille OSC at Stamford Bridge on February 22, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Christian Pulisic has not had a good season. One could argue over the degree to which said bad season is his fault and what the specific causes of it are—and indeed, I soon will—but even the biggest USMNT homers couldn’t credibly consider Pulisic’s body of work for Chelsea this season and conclude that he’s excelled, or met expectations, which, given the club he plays for, is the same thing.

Over the past month, both ESPN and the Athletic have released long, thoughtful stories on Pulisic’s 2021–22 campaign, and they both make similar points: While Pulisic was a revelation when he first got to the Premier League—rampaging through opponents, scoring goals, and playing with an undeniable swagger—he’s since stalled, struggled with injuries, and bounced around between a series of imperfect positions within current manager Thomas Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 system. Both stories concluded with optimism, noting that it wouldn’t take much for Pulisic, if healthy, to get his swag back. On Tuesday, Pulisic did just that with a stellar performance against Lille in the Champions League.

With Romelu Lukaku in a new phase of his protracted and confusing squabble with Tuchel, Chelsea didn’t play with a traditional focal striker at the head of the attack, opting instead to play more of a 3-4-3 with Pulisic on the left side of the front three. That’s his best position, not wing back, second striker, or lone striker, and he put in maybe his best performance of the season. Funny how that works!

Pulisic was a problem for Lille from the jump. He created a handful of good chances in the game’s first 15 minutes, especially in combination with Kai Havertz. At his best, Pulisic is an elite advancer of the ball. He loves to flay defenders with his dribble, he is reliably great at drawing fouls, and he works well in tight spaces. All three traits were on display against a Lille team that played with a spark but couldn’t match the verve of Pulisic and N’Golo Kanté. For all his on-ball skills, Pulisic’s best top-level ability is probably his understanding of space, and in the 62nd minute, he finished off a great Kanté run with a cool finish under pressure.

This was the sort of performance Chelsea and USMNT fans have been waiting for from Pulisic. He spent the game popping up in dangerous places, punishing Lille for their overreaches, and chasing down moves on his side of the field, including a one notably fearless tackle on a flying Renato Sanches. In short, he did the sorts of things that Chelsea bought him for, the ones he spent the pre-hamstring injury portion of his career with the Blues doing. The player he was then, when he was the best player on the pitch in games against Manchester City and Liverpool, didn’t disappear, so why did that player go missing for so long? The obvious—and for my money, correct—pair of answers (he was hurt a lot and Tuchel didn’t play him in the right place) still seemed unsatisfying while Pulisic was down.

Sure, left winger and striker are different positions, but are they really so different that Pulisic should look like a timid, unthreatening version of himself against bad EPL teams? The atmosphere surrounding Tuchel’s Chelsea seems to have soured some in recent months, and it is worth pointing out that basically no member of the attacking ranks has been consistently happy for any serious length of time, with the exception of Mason Mount. Lukaku had precisely eight touches against Crystal Palace last weekend, Timo Werner is still in the pain cave, and Hakim Ziyech is only now on the upswing after months of everyone saying he sucked. The point is, muddled circumstances have way more to do with Pulisic’s struggles than his imperfections as a player. His ass-kicking against Lille showed why, and Chelsea’s increasingly dire injury situation ensures he’ll continue to get chances to redeem his season.

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