English football has shown successful Americans before Christian Pulisic joined Chelsea. Tim Howard put in more than a decade of top-class work as Everton’s goalkeeper following a spell at Manchester United, and Brad Friedel logged 450 league appearances online for Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur.
Further up the pitch, Clint Dempsey scored 72 goals for Fulham and Tottenham, while Brian McBride could have done something similar with the same opportunities; he did 41 times in England even though he did not play his first full season there until 32 years old. Carlos Bocanegra was a rock at the back of Fulham for five seasons, and Claudio Reyna made over 1
As a 21-year-old, McBride and Friedel had not yet made their professional debut, Dempsey and Bocanegra were just starting out in MLS, and Howard was a backup for the New York / New Jersey MetroStars. Reyna and USMNT top scorer Landon Donovan had both signed with Bayer Leverkusen at that age, but Reyna was preparing for her debut and Donovan was on loan in America.
Simply put, there is no American comparison with what Pulisic achieves in the world’s most lucrative football league. We need to spread the web more widely.
– ESPN Daily Podcast: Pulisic’s is the United States’ first global star
– Pulisic Watch: Traces its debut season in England
– Karlsen: Pulisic among the world’s best under-21s
– ESPN +: Stream Pulisic in FA Cup Semis (July 19) | FC Daily
Whittling down the field
Let’s create a specific type of striker from a pool of players made up of everyone in Europe’s big five leagues. He must have played at least 1,000 minutes this season, averaging at least 55 touches per 90 minutes, attempting 35 passes and taking seven hands in the opponent’s penalty area.
With those criteria alone, we only have 14 players. They are different talents, guys who are strongly involved in both ball distribution and direct attack; players like Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, PSG’s Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, Man City’s Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez.
Now let’s take this a little further and make our player a solid passer (completion of at least 80%) with a better than average nose for the goal (at least 0.4 goals per 90). Let’s also make sure he’s involved in team defense by having an average of at least 3.7 ball recovery per 90.
Now we are down to five: Neymar, Atalanta’s late-flowering star Josip Ilicic and three of the best wings in the Premier League: Mahrez, Liverpool’s Sadio Mane – four players who are at least 28 years old, who are at or just past their athletic primes – and Pulisic, a 21-year-old American in his first Premier League campaign.
This set of specifications, although comfortably specific, attaches to a particular type of star. David Silva drew up this combination for Pep Guardiola Man City 2014-15; Franck Ribery did it for Bayern Munich twice; and Sterling and Leroy Sane have achieved in recent years for Guardiola at Man City. Ribery and Silva were much more involved in ball pressure than Pulisic, and Neymar certainly scores more goals. But no one played at that level at Pulisic’s age.
Pulisic has been forced to adapt at Chelsea
Pulisic arrived at Stamford Bridge from Borussia Dortmund last summer, a January signing who stayed in Germany for the rest of the season to help with BVB’s Bundesliga title hunt. (They came up with two points short.) He had made his BVB debut at the age of 17 during the 2015-16 season and became a mainstay of the team next year, mainly on the right wing. Let’s take a closer look:
His first two full seasons were pretty upside-down, as you’d expect for a teenager. He was used in advanced positions 2016-17, tried more risky passes but got a lot of hand in the box; in 2017-18, he sat further back and improved his final frequency but saw fewer goals and assistance opportunities.
During 2018-19, Pulisic flourished for a dramatically improved BVB despite a series of muscle injuries and increased competition from players such as Jadon Sancho. After playing at least 1,500 league minutes in the previous two seasons, Pulisic only logged 923, but he enjoyed them.
By the end of his time in Germany, Pulisic had combined the attacking numbers from his first full season with the ball’s advancement number for his second. During the season in the Bundesliga, only four players on average had at least 0.35 goals per 90 and 0.35 assists over 900+ minutes: Sancho, Pulisic, BVB’s Mario Gotze and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Sebastien Haller, who moved to West Ham United for £ 45 million last summer.
Life in the Premier League is incredible. There are four more matches than in the Bundesliga and teams do not get a month-long winter break. Pulisic once again had to struggle to play time on a list of young talents, and it took him a while to carve out a niche. In addition, he dealt with a new round of muscle injuries; he had not yet played in 2020 before the pandemic stop of the coronavirus.
In addition, he was asked to cover one pulp more ground for Chelsea, and on the opposite side of the pitch. Hans touches heat map for 2019-20:
“The beginning, it was not always easy,” Pulisic told Jeff Carlisle on ESPN in January, “and I was not always in the lineup, but I just kept working. I put my head down and I kept telling myself, ‘ My time is coming. “
And it did. When he began to find stable rotation time, Pulisic began producing.
Carlisle and other ESPN writers have rated Pulisic’s performances on a scale of 1 to 10 (first half of the season and second half). After averaging 5.7 in August and September, he counted 7.0 in October and November and then went back to 5.8 in December. By entering Tuesday’s match against Norwich City, he had an average of 7.5 since the league started last month.
Pulisic has been an integral part of Chelsea’s attack. His assistance number is down from his last season with BVB, but he is on average more touch in the box and thus more goals. Combine that with a higher throughput rate and, aside from injuries, you have a solid and unique debut campaign.
Projected over 38 games, it’s a 17-goal, 6-assist pace. Including his BVB goals, he will top Dempsey’s European total within a couple of years.
Who are Pulisic’s comrades?
Of course, he has not yet proven to be incredibly durable; there is nothing to say he is not, but the sample size has to grow a lot before we know one way or the other. It is still clear that Pulisic has made the transition from “incomparable to any previous American outlook” to “incomparable to any previous American pro“quite easily. So if we are tracking both his potential and his progress, we need to raise the bar for the comparison group.
Let’s go back to the other two elite wings in the whitling exercise above: Mahrez and Mane. Pulisic’s rating statistics are not as good this season, although they are quite comparable to Mane.
But again, Mahrez is 29 and Mane is 28. They are finished products or close to it. So what if we compared the same thing and looked at the latest elite wings in either their Premier League debut seasons or, in the case of Sterling, their age-21 campaign?
This is an incredibly ambitious group, and Pulisic’s statistics do not really match. Still, he is a firmer (or perhaps safer) passer than some, while his recent finish has made him the most successful painter in the group. In addition, his offensive stats are superior to Sterling and they continue to be very similar to Mane, even though Mane was older (22) when he moved from Red Bull Salzburg to Southampton. That comparison will never be kind to Pulisic.
How can Pulisic get even better?
There are two clear growth opportunities. Pulisic’s auxiliary values, although quite close to most on the list, are far behind Philippe Coutinho and Eden Hazard. Pulisic is more of a receiver than a passer-by – despite his assistant for Olivier Giroud against Norwich – but many of the players on this list grew to be both.
Even more noticeable, however, is the last column: ball recovery. These are basically collections of loose balls, and they are pretty good indications of both how close a player is to the ball and how involved he is in defensive pressure.
Each of the six non-Pulisic wingers above averaged at least 4.7 recoveries per 90 – at 6.9, Mahrez was a dang who destroyed the ball out of the gates with Leicester City – and the highest average Pulisic has had so far is 4, 0, two years ago at Dortmund.
We know that his expectations and acceleration skills are beautiful, as evidenced by his one-man breakout goal against Man City last month. But either he has not been asked to get so involved in the press game, or he has not been quite on the same standard as an elite player.
Pulisic still holds up quite well compared to some of the best wingers, and with Chelsea adding some incredible attacking pieces for next season – RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, Ajax Hakim Ziyech have already been signed – he will have chances to improve on those goals and assistance number. With a midfield and defense lacking in comparison to attack, Chelsea can probably use every ball recovery he can handle as well.
Both the present and the future are brighter for Pulisic than for any previous American player.