Gregg Berhalter has had to wait some time to receive from Chelsea am in-form Christian Pulisic. Given a choice, however, one imagines the Unites States men's national team coach would have happily accepted all of the injuries leading up to this moment if it meant that now his star forward would join up with the USMNT at something approximating his best for these three decisive World Cup qualifiers. And so it is that for the first time this season Pulisic is not leaving London with questions over his role looming large.
The knock to the ankle he suffered in Saturday's FA Cup win over Middlesbrough was a hearts in mouth moment for the USMNT but Pulisic did at least labor on into the second half before he was withdrawn by Thomas Tuchel. Now, joining up with Berhalter's squad on Sunday, the 23 year old betrayed no sign of any lasting complication.
It seems then, that for the first time since the CONCACAF Nations League, the USA might be about to see Pulisic at his best. The past few months have been good to America's premier attacking talent, who has already started more games in the 2022 portion of this season than he did in late 2021, a period marred by COVID-19 and injuries. In six of the nine matches since Chelsea returned from the Club World Cup Pulisic has been a starter. That includes the most significant fixtures from that period: the EFL Cup final and both legs of the Champions League round of 16 tie against Lille, where he became the first Blue since Didier Drogba to score home and away against the same opponent in the knockout rounds.
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Pulisic has graduated to a sufficient status that when he does not appear in Tuchel's side it no longer feels like the beginning of an extended spell in exile. Instead, those times he's on the bench, the impression is that he is being saved for more significant tasks ahead. Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that if the Chelsea manager were suddenly tasked with picking his starting XI for a must win game, he would probably name a front three of Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and Pulisic, a player who consistently delivers in clutch moments for club and country.
How can the USMNT get him in the position to do so most frequently then? That is the question that Berhalter faces both in the immediate term and heading into the World Cup in November (should the U.S. finish the job and qualify). Pulisic recently told ESPN that he does not want to feel like he has to be the USMNT's savior. "Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself that I need to do something special where I just need to play the best I can," he said.
All well and good but in tough away games against Mexico in the Estadio Azteca and Costa Rica in San Jose's Estadio Nacional, you need your most important player to deliver. The best version of Pulisic would be a valuable weapon in those hostile environments, but to do that he needs to have a system in place in which he shines.
The starting point for that ought to be understanding what Pulisic is good at for Chelsea, what it is he does so well that convinces Tuchel to start him. Perhaps most significantly, particularly in the front three he has found himself in of late, is that he takes an awful lot of shots. Of current players on Chelsea's roster only Timo Werner (whose relative decline in his manager's estimation is equally significant in Pulisic's rise) and Romelu Lukaku have averaged more shots in the penalty area per 90 minutes over the last two seasons than the American's 2.1. No one in the squad has a higher post shot expected goals (xG) return from those shots than his 0.39. It is worth remembering a chunk of this data set has come when Pulisic has been roaming the flanks as a wing back, wherever you put him he gets into the box and gets shots up.
He may wear a No.10 shirt and start on the wings but in many ways it is better to think of Pulisic as something like the modern incarnation of a penalty box poacher. In 2022 you cannot simply stand around and wait for the ball to come to you but must instead time your runs to perfection. In the EFL Cup final much of the focus of Pulisic's early miss was given over to the fact that, well, he should have scored. True though that may have been, it is also the case that he positioned himself very shrewdly on Joel Matip's shoulder before darting across him at the opportune moment.
For every miss like that one, you have a tap in of the kind he scored against Burnley, maybe the easiest goal he will score in his whole career but the sort that tend to fall to a specific type of player. Pulisic is one of them.
Shooter he may be but Pulisic is not particularly one to create for others. Over the past two seasons his expected assists per 90 are nearly half those of Hakim Ziyech whilst in 1500 fewer minutes Callum Hudson-Odoi has two more actual assists than the American's 10. Pulisic will look to commit defenders with his direct running but he tends not to beat them all that frequently. In the Premier League his xA totals of 0.08 this season and 0.12 last season are the lowest of his career.
That is perhaps the most glaringly missing facet of the American's game, the sort of thing that other volume shooting wings such as Mohamed Salah and Heung-min Son have that he doesn't. Pulisic can take shots, but as he's become elite at that skill he seems to have lost the ability to make them for others. It's yet another way his game has evolved to become a kind of forward in disguise. And then there's this, over the past three seasons of Champions League and Premier League football 25 of his 146 shots on goal have been unassisted, notably less than Mason Mount, for instance. It's the typical kind of performance you'd expect from a striker who is getting on the end of other's creative work, rather than a midfielder who is doing the creating themselves.
Little wonder then, that he looks so much more at home with Kai Havertz as Chelsea's center forward than he does when Romelu Lukaku leads the line. Havertz is able to facilitate, particularly with his back to goal, in a way that the Blues' record signing can't. That suits Pulisic, who loves to run in behind the defense. Note in the pass map below how close the two (Chelsea's No. 10 and No. 19) are to each other in passing moves. Havertz draws the defenders up, creating space in behind for Pulisic to dart into.
That is all well and good for Chelsea but Berhalter can't assemble his squad by buying up the most in demand attacking talent from across Europe for tens of millions (neither can Chelsea anymore though). He has the likes of Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Morris and Jesus Ferreira instead, none of whom immediately profile as creative forwards who excel at finding shots for teammates running off of them.
At the moment the squad was named there was, however, an intriguingly left field option that might have allowed Pulisic to do what he does best. Brenden Aaronson is generally viewed as more of a number 10 or inside forward, in World Cup qualifiers so far Berhalter has generally used him as a wide option. However, in Salzburg's Champions League games he has generally been receiving the ball in more central areas with a runner beyond him in Karim Adeyemi. Sound familiar? It is easy to see how both Aaronson and Pulisic could fit into that groove together quite swiftly.
And so it is with crushing irony that, on the first occasion in so long that the USA might be able to enjoy three games of fully fit Pulisic, Aaronson suffered a new injury ahead of his side's 4-1 win over Wolfsberg. That will leave Berhalter searching for other options. Dortmund's Gio Reyna has made the squad, finally returning to fitness after long injury layoffs. He's the kind of creative No. 10 who, in theory, Pulisic could thrive off of. Though, because of those injuries the 19-year-old has played a grand total of 90 minutes in the USMNT's qualifying campaign, though he was a starter on the team that won last summer's League of Nations tournament, beating Mexico in the finals to do it.
Regardless of what he decides, Berhalter will have to navigate through missing players to try and build a side that gets the most out of his biggest star. What is the international break without an injury crisis to sweat over? Still, at least this time around the injuries are to those around the USA's main man, while the star himself is ready and waiting.