Chelsea have a new wide player arriving in the form of Hakim Ziyech but the Blues have another player already in their ranks who can thrive off the Moroccan’s arrival.
Chelsea signed Christian Pulisic in a £58 million move in January 2019 to be their Eden Hazard replacement. The American international would not arrive for another six months, but his role had been cast.
Pulisic is a very different player to Hazard, it should be said.
Hazard is a clinical goalscorer with terrific dribbling and a stout and stocky frame. Pulisic is slighter, more nuanced, and does not possess that same killer streak in the final third, but his overarching impact is hoped to be the same: to be a game-changer.
But how did he perform in his first season and what does that mean for his career trajectory at Stamford Bridge?
After struggling to break into the starting XI for the opening weeks of the season, starting just three of the first nine league matches, Pulisic was afforded a run of starts from October up to Christmas. He scored six goals and added three assists in all competitions in this period and was one of Chelsea’s brighter players, linking with Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount especially well.
He was beginning to deliver on his potential and price tag.
“I always believed he had huge talent and that he would be a great player for us,” Chelsea head coach Frank Lampard said after Pulisic scored his fifth goal in three Premier League games in a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace. “He has been first class for us.”
Pulisic’s good form, however, would not continue. He slipped out of the starting XI shortly before Christmas following a run of four losses in five games. Pulisic made just one start after mid-December, a 1-1 draw with Brighton on New Year’s Day, and then suffered a ‘nasty’ adductor injury.
Lampard initially said the injury would keep Pulisic out for ‘a few weeks’, but Pulisic did not play another minute this season.
“Yes, [we miss him] because he’s a quality player and was having a really good patch pre-Christmas,” Lampard admitted in early February when Pulisic was beginning to make his return from injury. “Others have to stand up, too. But, of course, we’ll be happy to have him back.”
In all competitions, Pulisic played 1,576 minutes. He had six goals and six assists. It is a decent return for a first season at the club, though it pales in comparison to Hazard’s relentless match-winning contributions. Nevertheless, Pulisic’s underlying statistics paint a positive picture for the future.
Excluding Chelsea players that have played fewer than 1,000 Premier League minutes, Pulisic ranks second in shot-creating actions — defined as a shot, pass, dribble or foul won that lead to a shot within two more actions — per 90 minutes behind Willian, third in goal-creating actions behind Willian and Mount.
Pulisic is extremely active in chance creation and goalscoring. He ranks second in expected assists per 90, second in expected goals per 90, second in shots per 90, and first in shots on target per 90.
And he also plays a key role in build-up and progression. He ranks first in touches in the penalty area per 90, first in successful dribbles per 90, and third in progressive distance travelled with the ball per 90.
These statistics help paint a picture of Pulisic’s overall offensive involvement. He is active with the ball at his feet, is heavily involved in the penalty area, takes a lot of shots, creates a high number of chances, and is routinely used as an outlet on the left flank.
His direct style is critical to Chelsea’s attacking approach. As a pacy and skilful dribbler, he is lethal in one-on-ones and can be extremely dangerous even in tight spaces, often wriggling free when he is surrounded by defenders.
His strong performances have impressed his teammates, too.
“I think he has great potential,” Marcos Alonso said to Fox Soccer‘s Stu Holden this week. “Since preseason where he showed in a couple of games the things he is capable of, he looks like a great prospect. He has quality, speed, I thought he was going to struggle a bit with the physicality of the Premier League but he has done great.”
Alonso was equally as positive about Pulisic’s prospects.
“He missed a little bit of the continuity to show even more and keep improving but I think he’s going to be a great player for Chelsea,” the left-back continued.
“Hopefully, with his time off, he’s going to come back stronger from this small injury he had. I hope he can help us score important goals and have assists for many years. With the quality he has, I’m sure he will do.”
Pulisic will not turn 22 until September. He still has plenty of time to develop his game, to hone his skills, to improve his clinical nature in the final third. But based on his first season at Stamford Bridge, his trajectory at Chelsea is a positive one.
If Jadon Sancho arrives in the summer alongside Hakim Ziyech, Pulisic will see his opportunities crater. That, of course, would be problematic for his progression.
However, with Ziyech manning the right side, the added space the American would enjoy on the left could unleash his frightening speed and dribbling skills.
There is reason to hope that Pulisic can yet be the match-winning Hazard replacement. He needs time and patience, but his performances paint a positive start to life at Chelsea. And that, thus far, is all you can ask for.