LONDON -- An experiment for the short term or a vision of where his future might lie in the long term: why exactly did Thomas Tuchel opt to punt Christian Pulisic out to a wing back role as Chelsea's preseason preparations accelerated with a trip to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday?
All logic would suggest the former. This is preseason after all. This is when you try things that you are not particularly planning to come back to except in emergencies over the coming nine months. In normal circumstances Tuchel will have Cesar Azpilicueta and Reece James to turn to, two players who have excelled on the right side in the 3-4-3 that Chelsea have played since they changed managers midway through last season. There is also Callum Hudson-Odoi as an alternative, the youngster having impressed in the position in flashes.
And yet it is clear that Chelsea want something more in that position. Azpilicueta looks to be a more natural fit in the back three, particularly when Tuchel wants his side to attack the game. Not for nothing were the Blues pushing to secure Achraf Hakimi from Inter Milan, only to lose out to Paris Saint-Germain. The Moroccan would certainly have provided some attacking punch down the right had Chelsea secured his signature, perhaps even more than James, who offers an impressive blend of crossing on the front foot and reliability in defense.
With no obvious alternatives to Hakimi available on the market might there be occasions when that need for further offense down the right sees Pulisic enter the fray.
"Maybe, maybe. He played with me in Dortmund and he played it many times," Tuchel told CBS Sports when asked if he could return to his Pulisic at wing back experiment, though the fact that his other choice at wing back was rather more experimental suggested that this approach was not necessarily one he would reprise on a regular basis. "With Callum [Hudson-Odoi], Marcos [Alonso] was not able to play so we put Cally on the left side. It was something I wanted to see for a long time, if Callum can maybe be more dangerous from this position with some attributes inside, which he loves and did today."
Returning to the matter of Pulisic, Tuchel added: "In a normal situation we have Azpi and Reece for this position [right wing-back]. They are not here. Azpi started two days ago. Reece has not even started yet. We need to have solutions because we start on the 11th in the game against Villarreal and 14th is the season. We cannot not try things. Now is the time to see. It was the possibility to give him some minutes."
As an exercise in building match fitness the victory was certainly valuable for Pulisic, who managed 64 minutes, playing the second half in a more familiar position near the tip of Chelsea's attack. From there he had his effective flashes, pressing Kieran Tierney into a nervy clearance for a throw in. It was probably a welcome change of pace for the US international, who had struggled to quell the attacking thrust of the Arsenal left back in the first half.
Whilst Hudson-Odoi, who had several bites at the wingback cherry last season, rifled past Calum Chambers with verve and aggression on the Chelsea left, Pulisic did not have quite the same impact on the opposite flank. Without a clear reference point ahead of him — Hakim Ziyech often drifting infield whilst Kai Havertz's positioning was inconsistent albeit effective — Pulisic often found himself having to carry a sizeable burden in both attack and defense. As he struggled to curtail Tierney at one end so did he fail to rifle through the opponents with quite the same purpose, notably losing possession to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the edge of the Arsenal box midway through the opening period.
Tuchel will also have noted that playing Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi in such deep roles did not necessarily limit the efficacy of Chelsea's defense. For all Arsenal's territory Tuchel was right to point out that his side had "won the first half deservedly and we could've scored a second and third". Even with such an attack-minded side, the Blues were able to keep their hosts from registering a single shot on target.
That does not mean the American did not have difficulties. If Pulisic returns to the position in future he may find any test easier to manage than Tierney and Aubameyang in a game played with much of the same intensity these two would bring in Premier League games.
Those tests may well come again, at least in the short term. It is only 10 days until Chelsea's season kicks off with the Super Cup against Villarreal, not necessarily the most competitive of fixtures but one where Tuchel will be eager to add another trophy to his resume. By then Azpilicueta at the very least should be available, potentially James too. Pulisic's dalliance on the flank was likely a brief one but should Tuchel ever want to go for the opponent's throat with an all offense lineup, it may be that his No.10 finds himself back in that wing back berth.