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Christian Pulisic Has Found A Home At Chelsea

The Chelsea Football Club appeared to be in turmoil before the 2019-20 Premier League season began. Enigmatic, chain-smoking manager Maurizio Sarri left the club after just one season at the helm, returning to Italy to coach Juventus; it sold its best player (and perhaps the best player in all of the Premier League), Eden Hazard, to Real Madrid for a fee north of $100 million; a transfer ban meant the club couldn’t use any of that Hazard money to match its top-six rivals in pursuit of another superstar; and former Chelsea midfielder and club legend Frank Lampard was brought in to fill the void left by Sarri’s departure despite questions about his tactical expertise.

This was thought to be a transition year for the Blues, but a quick glance at the table indicates that this isn’t a rebuilding year at all: Through match week 11, Chelsea’s youthful squad and inexperienced manager sit in fourth place, comfortably among the Champions League spots and 6 points clear of London rivals Arsenal. They have a 77 percent chance of finishing in the top four, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model.1 Chelsea, it seems, might just be the real deal — or at least some version of it. And though it took longer than some American fans might have hoped, Christian Pulisic appears to be firmly at the center of this exceptional young soccer team’s plans.

Pulisic’s Chelsea career got off to a quick start — the American attacker started in three of his club’s first four Premier League matches — but seemed to stall as swiftly as it began. Chelsea’s calendar got very busy between Sept. 14 and Oct. 2 — it played six games in just more than two weeks — but aside from one start Pulisic was nowhere to be found. Pulisic stans really began to panic when the kid from Hershey, Pennsylvania, failed to make the matchday squad in a Champions League game against French club Lille.

It was one thing for Pulisic to get overshadowed — and eventually replaced — at Borussia Dortmund last season by an up-and-coming world beater like Jadon Sancho; it was an entirely different thing for him to lose opportunities to old-timers like Willian and Pedro, each of whom has been around since Pulisic was in grammar school. A narrative was taking shape: Pulisic’s incredibly young Chelsea career had already reached an impasse.

But the narrative — as is so often the case — wasn’t that simplistic. Lampard told Sky in October that Pulisic’s summer workload with the United States men’s national team played a role, and he assured anyone who was listening that Pulisic was going to be a “big, big player” for Chelsea Football Club.

That patience is beginning to pay off. Since being left out of the squad against Lille, Pulisic has been featured in all seven Chelsea matches across three different competitions, scoring in his two most recent Premier League matches, including a hat trick against the usually hard-to-puncture Burnley. The goals are beginning to come, and the underlying numbers don’t look too bad, either — among forwards and midfielders who have played in at least five Premier League games this season, Pulisic ranks 10th in shots on target per 90 minutes, 19th in big chances2 created per 90 minutes, 22nd in take-ons per 90 minutes and 32nd in expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes — and 23 of the players ranked higher than Pulisic on the xG list are center forwards.

Pulisic is making things happen from midfield

Top 10 Premier League wingers and midfielders with at least five games played, by expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes, 2019-20 season

Per 90 minutes
player Age team Assists xA Goals xG
1 Mason Greenwood 18 Man. United 0.00 0.06 0.00 0.84
2 Raheem Sterling 24 Man. City 0.10 0.33 0.71 0.67
3 Mohamed Salah 27 Liverpool 0.32 0.16 0.53 0.65
4 Adam Lallana 31 Liverpool 0.00 0.08 0.79 0.61
5 Leandro Trossard 24 Brighton 0.30 0.28 0.59 0.57
6 Bernardo Silva 25 Man. City 0.28 0.21 0.56 0.53
7 Sadio Mane 27 Liverpool 0.21 0.15 0.62 0.53
8 James Milner 33 Liverpool 0.75 0.09 0.38 0.52
9 Christian Pulisic 21 Chelsea 0.37 0.15 0.74 0.47
10 David Silva 33 Man. City 0.51 0.23 0.39 0.47

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

None of this should come as a shock: The quick and crafty American finished in the top 20 in the Bundesliga in big chances created per 90 minutes in two of the four seasons he played there. Pulisic fell out of favor with Dortmund coach Lucien Favre last season, but not because he wasn’t doing everything well — it was because Sancho was doing everything slightly better.

Because Pulisic is nearly as good at kicking a ball with his left foot as he is with his dominant right, there’s a not-too-distant-future version of Chelsea that sets up with Pulisic on the right wing, Hudson-Odoi on the left wing, Tammy Abraham up top and Mason Mount floating behind and between all three. None of those players are older than 22; the rest of the Premier League could be in a lot of trouble for a long, long time.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Chelsea is also in good shape in its Champions League group — a win at Valencia later this month would all but guarantee its passage to the knockout stage of the tournament. A loss, on the other hand, could be disastrous.

  2. Opta defines a big chance as “a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range when the ball has a clear path to goal and there is low to moderate pressure on the shooter.”

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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