Soccer

Premier League Scouting Report: Christian Pulisic to Chelsea

Last week Real Madrid welcomed Eden Hazard to the Bernabéu with a party attended by as many as 50,000 Los Blancos fans — more people than sometimes attend the team’s home games. The eager crowd erupted when a slightly tardy Hazard finally appeared on stage. After a brief address, the Belgian superstar made his way down to the pitch where he punted commemorative balls into the stands as he strolled triumphantly around the grounds. He put a stamp on the jubilant evening by kissing his new jersey, to the roar of the adoring masses. Real Madrid clearly anticipate great things from their €150M man, and Hazard himself hopes that the change of venue will elevate him to the status of galactico before his world-class talent begins to succumb to the inexorable effects of aging (theguardian.com).

But at Stamford Bridge, Hazard’s auspicious move has generated considerably less glee, despite the huge transfer fee. In the first place, there are few players in the world who could plug the Hazardous hole in Chelsea’s starting-XI. Secondly, a transfer ban remains in effect until an appeal that will not be heard this summer, so Chelsea’s hunt for a replacement must wait until at least January 2020, and possibly until next summer (the club penalized for dozens of improprieties relating to the transferring of minors).

The Blues will be forced to play at least the first half of the 2019-20 season with only the names they already own or are already borrowing. There will be no blockbuster summer transfer to replace their departed Belgian talisman, though they may recall some outstanding loans.

But Hazard’s dream of playing in Spain has been an open secret for over a year, and Chelsea wisely hedged against his potential loss with the January purchase of midfielder Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund. Pulisic was immediately loaned back to Borussia Dortmund for the remainder of the season, but his €64M transfer fee made him the most expensive American football player in history. With Hazard now gone and Chelsea’s hands tied in the summer transfer window, the Blues will count on Pulisic to shoulder much of the load that the Belgian once carried.

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Who is Christian Pulisic?

Christian Pulisic was born September 18, 1998, to Mark and Kelley Pulisic. His parents met while both were playing college soccer at George Mason University in Virginia. His father went on to play eight years of professional indoor soccer before transitioning to a career in coaching. In 2005 Kelley won a Fulbright scholarship, which brought the family to Tackley, England for her to participate in a teaching exchange program. Mark used the time in England to work on his UEFA “A” license, and the couple enrolled seven year-old Christian in the local football club, Brackley Town.

The family also immersed itself in England’s insane football culture, making pilgrimages to Anfield, Old Trafford, and White Hart Lane. Mark told Sky Sports “We were football crazy. We travelled all over and took in all the nuances of what English football is: the craziness outside the stadiums, the chanting inside and singing the songs. Christian remembers it to this day. For sure it had an impact in the short time we were there.” Christian agrees, saying “A lot of people don’t realize but it really brought on my passion for the game. I just started to love it so much and I said: ‘Wow. I’m pretty good! I think I can do something with this game.’ ” (The Daily Mail)

And he did. Upon returning to the States, Christian joined Michigan Rush before moving to PA Classics, a US Soccer Development Academy team where he would play for seven years. His performances for PA Classics got him noticed by the national team, and in 2012 he made the U15s at the age of 13. Tab Ramos, US Soccer’s youth technical director, remembers the first time he saw Christian play: “He looked like someone’s little brother that just jumped on the field, and I was waiting for someone to get him out. Then I realized, wow, not only does he look like he doesn’t belong physically, but he’s running the show. You watched the game for about five minutes and you realized that everybody was playing through him. And the pace of the game was completely run by him.” (Sports Illustrated)

After his second season with the U15 national team, his parents decided that Christian should continue his growth in the sport by joining a club in Europe. Pulisic received an offer for a trial with Barcelona at their La Masia academy, but the family ultimately decided on Germany due to that country’s strong emphasis on youth development. Dortmund were eager to snap him up, even arranging for him to obtain a European Union passport based on the Croatian heritage of his grandfather. This proved to be hugely beneficial: “As a result of my dual citizenship, I’ve been able to play in Europe, training at the Dortmund academy since I was 16. Without it, I would have had to wait until I was 18. And for a soccer player, those years are everything.” (bundesliga.com)

Pulisic made the move to Germany in February 2015, and after a year at Dortmund’s Hohenbuschei academy, he made his Bundesliga debut on January 30, 2016 at the age of 17 years and 133 days. The next month he became the youngest American ever to feature in a UEFA competition, and in April he scored goals in back-to-back games. The first goal made him the fourth-youngest goal-scorer in Bundesliga history, and the second made him the youngest ever to score two. In May he became the USMNT’s youngest goal-scorer by netting against Bolivia.

In September of the following season, just four days shy of his 18th birthday, he became the youngest Dortmund player — and the youngest American — to play in the Champions League. Dortmund would go on to lift the DFB Cup that year, making Pulisic the youngest American to win a major European trophy. And although the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Pulisic was named its 2017 Player of the Year. In November of 2018, he became the youngest player ever to captain the side. He was barely 20 years and two months old.

Not bad for a kid just out of his teen years, right? But despite all these precocious achievements, Pulisic failed to find his way back into the starting 11 after recovering from injury this season. Having fallen down the pecking order behind Englishman Jordan Sancho, Pulisic made it clear to Dortmund’s executives that he intended to follow his dream of playing in England rather than renew his contract with the German club in 2020. When Chelsea made a play for him this winter, he was ready to accept.

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Where will Pulisic fit in at Chelsea?

Pulisic’s move from Dortmund to Stamford Bridge appears to be a win for all parties concerned. A transfer-banned Chelsea brought in a talented young player just coming into his prime, and whose celebrity status in the States will spike Chelsea’s American fan-base. Dortmund shipped a player who started just five league games this year in exchange for a fat Roman Abramovich cheque that becomes the third-largest sum ever paid for a player from the Bundesliga. And Pulisic will realize his boyhood dream of playing in the English Premier League, where he’ll be a presumptive starter for a Big Six side.

But exactly where will Pulisic play in that side? The midfielder is good with both feet, has searing pace with a low center of gravity, and excels at dribbling and taking on opposing players. Not surprisingly, he has primarily played on both wings for Dortmund. The obvious role for Pulisic, then, is as a direct replacement for Hazard on the left wing.

However, Pulisic wears the #10 jersey for his country, and that is definitely the role he plays for the USMNT, whose new coach Gregg Berhalter expects him to be “the catalyst for our team” (bundesliga.com). Interestingly, Berhalter actually plays a 4-3-3 system that employs two #10s, each slanting to one side of the pitch (Pulisic is the leftward #10 in this scheme).

Berhalter’s setup is extremely similar to Frank Lampard’s system at Derby County. Like Berhalter, Lampard employed a 4-3-3 with the wingers coming inside to interchange with the #10s, effectively creating a 4-3-2-1. Play builds from the back through the middle, and when the ball reaches one of the #10s, the other makes a forward run while the wingers pinch in and the fullbacks fill in down the flanks. This opens space and creates multiple passing options for the player with the ball. With Lampard looking like the man Abramovich is targeting to replace the departed Maurizio Sarri, Pulisic’s familiarity with the role of a #10 in a Lampard-style system could see him slotted into that position. And Willian’s 30 starts on the left wing last season mean that Pulisic may not have to be the one to replace Hazard there.

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Will Pulisic be a Good Fantasy Asset?

Every good fantasy manager knows that the most fundamental criterion for choosing a player is his starting status. We favor players who are nailed-on to make the S11, because no-shows cannot earn us points. Because of the void left by Hazard, as well as the likely loss of loanee Mateo Kovacic, there will be plenty of openings in Chelsea’s midfield, and Pulisic’s versatility means he has the tools required to fill any of them. And although Pulisic is still quite young, he does have experience, plus Chelsea will want to justify his hefty transfer fee as well as leverage his American market draw. So the club will want him on the pitch, and the opportunities will be there. Barring injury or a disastrous run of form, I think we can presume he starts somewhere in Chelsea’s attack.

But can we expect him to produce? A comparison of Pulisic to Chelsea wingers from this season might be instructive. The table below represents data from transfermarkt.com for the 2018-19 season, totaled across all competitions.

Pulisic vs Chelsea Wingers

Player Minutes Goals Minutes/Goal Assists Minutes/Assist Minutes/YC Minutes/RC
Player Minutes Goals Minutes/Goal Assists Minutes/Assist Minutes/YC Minutes/RC
Pulisic 1701 7 243 6 283.5 850.5 n/a
Hazard 3818 21 185 17 224.6 1939 n/a
Willian 3533 8 441.6 14 252.4 1766 n/a
Pedro 3099 13 238.4 5 619.8 1033 n/a

It’s important to recognize that Pulisic played in a different league against different competition than the Blues’ boys, and that not all wingers play the same role from team to team and system to system. It is nevertheless interesting that among these players, Pulisic’s goals per minute is on par with Pedro, who was Chelsea’s joint #2 scorer behind only Hazard. Additionally, he provides assists at approximately the same rate as Willian, who ranked in the English Premier League’s top 10 (jointly) last season.

But those stats are compiled from Pulisic’s work at Dortmund, where he played as a winger (26 times on the right, and 4 times on the left). Can we expect Pulisic to produce if/when he plays as a central midfielder for Chelsea? Let’s have a look at his transfermrkt.com stats from the USMNT, where he plays as a #10:

Pulisic as No. 10

Minutes Goals Minutes/Goal Assists Minutes/Assist Yellow Cards Red Cards
Minutes Goals Minutes/Goal Assists Minutes/Assist Yellow Cards Red Cards
1597 10 159.7 7 228.1 0 0

Remarkably, in his role as a creative midfielder for the USMNT, Pulisic’s assist rate is equivalent to Eden Hazard’s, and his goal productivity is actually better than the Belgian superstar’s! Make no mistake, I am not asserting that Christian Pulisic is or ever will be a better real-life or fantasy player than Eden Hazard. But I think these tables demonstrate that we ought to be able to count on Pulisic to produce good fantasy returns regardless of where he lines up, and that he may be especially attractive to fantasy managers if/when he starts in the #10 slot.

Importantly, as the tables show, his favorable discipline statistics mean his fantasy owners won’t be eating too many deductions for yellow and red cards, either. He also has corners and set pieces in his locker, but it remains to be seen if he’ll take them for the Blues. And due to his speed, guile, and willingness to take on defenders one-on-one, he suffers fouls at a relatively high rate — an average of 3 every 90 minutes for Dortmund last year. In fantasy platforms (like Fantrax) that reward this statistic, players who are constantly hacked can pile up a nice heap of phantom points even (or especially) when denied goals and assists. Indeed, Eden Hazard was a fine example of this; his average for Chelsea last season was 3.65 fouls suffered every 90 minutes.

And in some fantasy formats, Pulisic’s initial price will be a lot cheaper than what we’re accustomed to paying to field Eden Hazard.

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Summary

In Christian Pulisic Chelsea have bought an extremely gifted and versatile young midfielder who will not only take some of the sting out of the loss of Eden Hazard, but also draw thousands upon thousands of new fans from the still-nascent American market for world (and especially English-language) football. Pulisic gets to continue along a wunderkind career arc that in so many ways parallels that of the iconic player he is ostensibly replacing. And EPL fantasy managers who once thought their options in the Chelsea attack had all but evaporated with the departure of Eden Hazard may now have a legitimate alternative in the form of a 20 year-old from Pennsylvania. I’ll leave you with this video, and you can decide:

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Is Pulisic on your short list of fantasy new-boys to draft into your week-1 fantasy EPL squads? Is anyone else on your radar already? And while we’re here, whom do you think Chelsea should hire to replace Sarri? Please talk to us in the comments below!

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