Not too long ago, Christian Pulisic was the treasure trove of elite wing attacking play—he had become so good at Borussia Dortmund that he was on the radar of every big club, and rightly so. And so, when, on January 2, 2019, Chelsea announced his signing, he was heralded as the heir to the soon-to-depart Eden Hazard. Sadly, Pulisic has been anything but an heir to the Belgian cult hero.
In the 2019-20 season, Christian Pulisic did everything at an above-average rate. He took enough shots, made enough passes into the box, created a lot of chances, pressed well, dribbled past defenders a lot, had a lot of carries per 90, won fouls, penalties, and headers. To the American press, Pulisic had survived moving to a new country—and had proven them right. In his first start after the pandemic-induced pause, Pulisic was by far the best player on the pitch against the Premier League’s defending champions. Manchester City. A few weeks later, he was electric against eventual champions, Liverpool. Simply put, for the sake of the USMNT, Pulisic couldn’t afford to fail. And, thank goodness, he hadn’t.
Until he began to. Although the first half of last season can be considered a write-off for everyone at Chelsea, he had already lost his place in the XI by the time Chelsea were lifting the Champions League trophy. This season, it is not just that he’s not playing, it’s more that he isn’t particularly doing much when he is playing.
What Has Disappeared?
First, let us go through the areas where Pulisic has lost his magic wand.
To begin with, in Pulisic’s 12 PL appearances for Chelsea this season, Pulisic has only attempted 12 shots. Per 90, it rounds up to 1.43, placing him in the 19th percentile for wingers in the Premier League. This metric has nosedived progressively from 2.23 per 90 last year to 3.25 the year before. For a winger of an elite club expected to be challenging for the title, that is poor to say the least.
To make matters worse, fans could excuse Pulisic’s lack of shots if he were creating properly. Sadly, whether as a wing-back or an attacker, Pulisic has struggled to create. His xA stats show that his expected assists per 90 has dropped from 0.18 two years ago to 0.15 last year, and then to 0.06 per 90 this year (placing him in the bottom 5% for PL wingers). So in terms of creating and shooting, it’s been grim for Pulisic thus far.
What’s also gone from Pulisic’s game are those driving runs that dazzled fans at Borussia Dortmund and USMNT. In 2019-20, Pulisic progressively carried the ball 10 times per 90. Last season, that dropped to 8.86 per 90, and this season, it has become even worse, with him now averaging 5.95 progressive carries per 90, which is just around the 50th percentile for Premier League wingers.
For Chelsea, It Can Not Only Be About the Ball
Despite Pulisic’s ability to glide past defenders with the ball and drive the ball forward, Pulisic was special at such a young age due to his off-ball ability. Top teams like Chelsea have all the midfielders, win-backs and centre backs to move the ball into the final third, and so they need attackers who can make dangerous moves off the ball in the area to create space, force errors, and lead to goalscoring chances. With Pulisic of yesteryear, you were sure of an attacker who could receive the ball in the box as much as your striker.
With his off-ball movement when anticipating the ball, Pulisic is still elite. He’s receiving 9.05 progressive passes per game, which ranks him in the 92nd percentile Premier League. His touches in the box still see him rank in the 81st percentile. But that’s about it. His off-ball movement when not receiving a pass — runs made simply to open up space — is still not elite.
With even fewer on-ball actions this season, Pulisic has also been way less active off the ball. See the massive drop in high-speed runs and sprints. He has simply stopped running.
Why Is Pulisic Struggling?
All things considered, it is difficult to look at the statistical analysis above and come off with a different conclusion than the fact that he’s been injured a lot. In his two-and-a-half games at Chelsea, Pulisic has missed 43 games, per Transfermarkt, There is also the fact that Pulisic has not adapted well enough to the stress and anxiety of the past two years. He has been open about his mental health struggles due to his ‘role’ as a poster boy for the USMNT’s resurgent team. Playing for Chelsea is not the easiest ask, too: the coach changes almost every season, the fans are impatient most of the time, and the generally volatile nature of Chelsea’s operations do not allow for the constant injury rehabs Pulisic has had to go through.
For Pulisic and Chelsea fans, the stats are concerning—and so is the decline in his physical output. He needs to figure it all out with all the help he can get from Thomas Tuchel, and quickly. But with Tuchel himself dealing with so many fumbling attackers, there is only so much the German tactician can do.