Will Chelsea make or break Christian Pulisic?
Disclaimer: The views of the author do not necessarily represent that of Sportskeeda
I am not sure which was harder to take – the USMNT getting pummeled by Canada, who had not beaten USA since the Ronald Reagan era, or Christian Pulisic in tears after getting the hook midway through the second half. Was Pulisic primarily at fault for the debacle? He did give the ball away a few times, very uncharacteristic of him, but he still created the team's best chance. I think it was more about manager Greg Berhalter making a point to the rest of the team that no one was sacred. Given all the kerfuffle already going on about Pulisic’s playing time at Chelsea, Berhalter really should have shown more sense than to kick the kid when he was down. Yes, easy to forget Pulisic is still a kid, isn’t it?
To my mind, Pulisic’s troubles at Chelsea began the day they signed him. The immediate chatter was about Pulisic being brought in as a backstop for the impending departure of Eden Hazard. Absurd that anyone would compare a 20-year-old kid to someone nipping at the heels of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but there it was. Still, Maurizio Sarri had signed him, so he must have seen a role for him in the Chelsea starting lineup. Except Sarri moved on at the end of the season. His replacement, Frank Lampard, came in with hands tied by Chelsea’s transfer ban and with the already signed Pulisic as the only Chelsea pickup. Let us look at the challenges facing Pulisic, starting with the tangibles and then looking at the intangibles.
My first reaction to Dortmund shipping Pulisic to Chelsea is that it would be bad for Pulisic. The added pressure of a big club like Chelsea, not to mention the Hazard comparisons, would make it worse. The English game is characterized by speed and “robust” tackling. Referees let much more of it go. While there are many English players with similarly slight frames, they have grown up taking English hits all their footballing lives. Teams in the bottom half thrive on this. The aforementioned Eden Hazard was fouled more than any other player; it is a wonder he held up for so long. There are instances of players like Troy Deeney proclaiming openly that he likes to hit a player to test the opponents’ mettle; the great Roy Keane was another of that bent. Many promising imports have not thrived in England, but prosper elsewhere. Gonzalo Higuain and Alvaro Morata are two recent examples – coincidentally also at Chelsea.
A second aspect of the English game is the expectation of all players to track back. Fans applaud attackers almost as much for tracking back and making a play as for scoring a goal. Pulisic had always shown the willingness to track back during his Dortmund days, but he often seemed lost on the path to follow and the positions to take. He has already shown improvement at Chelsea. However, he has a long way to go before becoming reliable in his defensive duties. I believe this is the primary reason for his limited playing time under Lampard. On the front foot, his inventiveness and ability to get out of tight situations puts him on a par with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount. However, Pulisic has always been reluctant to shoot, perhaps trained to feed the striker instead. Mount and Hudson-Odoi would get the edge on that. On the back foot, I can see why Lampard would trust Hudon-Odoi, Mount, Pedro or Willian ahead of Pulisic.
The biggest intangible challenge Pulisic faces is his national origin. No, there is nothing specifically against US players. However, many managers in Europe display an invisible hierarchy when it comes to the treatment of players. The top tier consists of Europe and South America; Africa sits very close behind where they hold their nose when it comes to players from Asia, CONCACAF, or Oceania. I believe Frank Lampard is of this bent. Here are some examples from around Europe to illustrate this.
Tim Howard vs. David de Gea (from different times at Manchester United)
Tim Howard’s stint at Manchester United was humming right along till that fateful error against Porto in the Champions League. Howard’s spirit was sucked right out by the heat he took for that error. He was eventually sold to Everton and had a great career there and with the USMNT.
David de Gea made several errors early in his career at Man United, but Alex Ferguson persisted with him – a very wise decision as it turned out.
Pochettino and the footballing Third World
Let me begin by saying Pochettino is a great manager and has done a great job at Spurs.
Poch sent Clint Dempsey packing from Spurs shortly after he took over. Dempsey had scored 7 goals in 29 matches, including a critical one against Man United – a very decent output for a midfielder (which is where he played for Spurs).
Brad Friedel never saw a game after Poch arrived, though he had not made any errors to cost him his place. Okay, on this one, I will give Poch the benefit of the doubt, because he wanted a sweeper-keeper – not Friedel’s strong point. He brought in Hugo Lloris.
Heung-Min Son (Korea) didn’t break into the starting lineup till a spate of injuries laid the likes of Dele Alli and Erik Lamela low. Son has been fantastic. Still, he is back to coming off the bench, even though Dele Alli is a shadow of what he was in his first two seasons as a starter.
Keylor Navas at Real Madrid
Despite years of consistent performances that helped Real Madrid to several Champions League titles and some La Liga crowns, the talking heads were always popping the question of Real needing an upgrade in goal. Out goes Navas and in comes Thibaut Courtois and now the talk is of finding a replacement for Courtois.
The way forward
Pulisic has taken the most important step forward. He has shrugged off all the chatter and decided to concentrate on his performances on the field. Even Lampard couldn’t help but sit up and take notice after Pulisic’s brief but outstanding spell against Ajax and then against Burnley.
The English game is going to help build up his stamina and endurance with all that running back and forth. More than that, he is going to emerge tougher from the hits he is bound to take. Indeed, the better he gets, the more he will be targeted.
There are things Pulisic must improve upon. He needs to continue to learn about good positioning and coordination with his fullback on defense. As I mentioned, I believe this is the biggest reason Lampard is reluctant to give him more minutes. Trust must be gained and Pulisic is smart enough to realize this.
He must stop being gun shy and take the shot when it presents itself. To me, this is the big advantage Mason Mount has – the lad has complete confidence in his shot. By almost never taking a shot, Pulisic often ends up hitting tamely when he does, thus feeding a vicious cycle.
Will Lampard and the Chelsea assistants work out these chinks with Pulisic? Perhaps only time can tell!