Christian Pulisic will not join the United States Men’s National Team for this international break due to an injury he picked up against Crystal Palace. Whatever is going on with the USMNT, he cannot help them as much as he can help Chelsea.
There’s not many ways in which you can say Gregg Berhalter is a better national team coach than Didier Deschamps, but at least vis-a-vis Chelsea, the man with the extra “G” certainly has the edge. Assenting to Chelsea’s determination that Christian Pulisic is not fit to play for his national team after coming off with a hip injury in the last game before the break, Berhalter removed Pulisic from the USMNT for their games against Canada and Cuba. If only Deschamps would do the same for N’Golo Kante.
This is the best thing for Pulisic and certainly for Chelsea, although it comes at the USMNT’s expense. Then again, not much could make the USMNT any worse and, for all his prodigious talent, Pulisic is not enough to pull them into the light.
Pulisic’s season so far is difficult to compare to his three and a half seasons at Borussia Dortmund.
His five league goals are already a career best, and have come on less than half the minutes of his previously most productive season. He is making more key passes and taking more shots than ever before, and is more involved in plays leading to goals at Chelsea than he was as Dortmund. He is involved in 66% of plays leading to goals and 69% of plays leading to expected goals.
Pulisic’s involvement statistics this season are similar to Eden Hazard’s at Chelsea. The American had been touted as a replacement for Hazard since he signed in January, and this narrative rose in the summer when Hazard left for Real Madrid. For all that time, the comparison was a bit superficial. Their offensive output was never similar, and their underlying statistics of expected goal involvement and contribution aligned sporadically. Willian seemed a closer comparison at Chelsea than Hazard.
Under Frank Lampard, Pulisic’s statistics, output and style of play are starting to cohere. Pulisic comes alive as defenders bear down on him. He looks more comfortable and confident in close control situations than in anything more open, and he attracts defenders to him because he is able to retain the ball in tight quarters so well. He can retain the ball in these situations much like Willian, but is more likely than the Brazilian to break through the swarm for a shot or final pass, as Hazard would do. Those situations are the source of his contributions to shots, goals and expected goals.
The small difference in Pulisic’s involvement in goals versus expected goals (66% vs. 69%) reflects the quality of chances he is involved in and the clinical finishing of his teammates.
Pulisic’s movement off the ball is an important part of how Chelsea create space against teams in a low block. Whether Mason Mount drops deep or moves sideways between the lines, Pulisic comes between the lines in the opposite direction of Mount (usually slightly wider) to give the opponent another reason to break their lines in order to cover a passing lane. Either player are a worthwhile target for a pass from Mateo Kovacic or Jorginho, but they also leave Tammy Abraham in more space to run off the opponent’s defensive line against fewer defenders. This gives the Blues two attacking midfield options to keep the play alive or a direct option to Tammy Abraham over the top or via a throughball.
Whatever Pulisic would be doing for the US Men’s National Team over the next week, it would not have as much impact as everything he does for Chelsea.
The last time he wore the stars and stripes, he came off in the historic loss against Canada and his exasperated, downcast face on the bench dominated social media for a few days. Frank Lampard put Pulisic right back in the saddle, not letting the American dwell too much on America. In the second game back he assisted Michy Batshuay’s winner against Ajax, and in the next game scored a hat trick against Burnley.
Chelsea have been dealing with an international break curse for the entire season. American soccer fans have few reasons to praise Gregg Berhalter. But those who wear Blue along with their red, white and blue can at least be happy Berhalter preserved Christian Pulisic for club success when he has so little hope for any with his country.
Now for some of the other national team coaches to do the same before Chelsea lose anyone else.