Times are tough for Christian Pulisic at Chelsea. United’s captain is fighting for his future at Stamford Bridge, but even on the rare occasions he gets the chance to impress coach Thomas Tuchel, the odds seem to be turning against him.
For the first time since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as manager in January, Pulisic has been included in the Premier League starting line-up for Chelsea’s clash with Leeds United at Elland Road. It was only his second start in 12 games under Tuchel and just like the first time, a 1-0 win over Barnsley in the FA Cup, the 22-year-old did not last 90 minutes.
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At Barnsley, Pulisic played 80 minutes against the Championship side on a hard, muddy pitch at Oakwell and obviously struggled to impress. And against Leeds, Marcelo Bielsa lined him up in the wrong position after Tuchel assigned him as a right midfielder.
When it was the 68th minute. Pulisic, who was replaced in the 50th minute of Saturday’s 0-0 draw, showed both relief and irritation that he had to play on the other side of the pitch, where he is most effective. He was taken out of the game with just 42 touches – 27 fewer than Ben Chilwell at the other end to that point – and he won just 20% of his one-on-one situations.
24 hours earlier, Tuchel spoke about the need for Pulisic to be patient, describing him as an important player who has the potential to be crucial for us. Tuchel should know that he was in charge of Borussia Dortmund when Pulisic made his German debut at the age of 17. Tuchel even admitted that his knowledge of Pulisic’s strengths and weaknesses may now work against the player, as he remembers how useful he can be as a substitute: I know the impact he can have in the last 20-30 minutes. Tuchel also said about Pulisic before this match that it was time for him to step up, but the German didn’t make it easy for the striker.
Pulisic has been around too long to settle for a substitute on the bench. He showed his quality in the second half of last season, when he scored five goals in 11 games for Chelsea following his return. He will now find it hard to accept relegation to the second division.
Pulisic was hampered by injury all season, but he has been fit for most of Tuchel’s tenure, playing in nine of the new coach’s 12 games.
He was on the field for a total of 275 minutes during Tuchel’s 1,080 playing minutes, just over 25%. So it wasn’t easy to impress when he had so little time to impress. And that was on display at Elland Road, where Pulisic played like a player but whose confidence is so fragile he can only do what is necessary.
There were times when he could and should have passed his pursuer Ezgjan Alioski, but instead he opted for a safe, easy pass. At the same time, Tuchel was giving orders from the bench, telling Pulisic where to run and when to pass, and when the American didn’t listen, he showed his displeasure by waving his arms excessively and shaking his head. But that is Tuchel’s style, and Pulisic is not the only Chelsea player to feel the weight of his demanding personality. Just last month, Callum Hudson-Odoi had to undergo a substitution before being accused of not doing what was expected of him.
Christian Pulisic could not help Chelsea to more than a point at Leeds. LORENCE GRIFFITS/PULF/AFP via Getty Images
But playing on a poor pitch – the surface at Elland Road was barely better than Barnsley’s – will make it even harder for Pulisic to beat his new manager.
What he needs is a chance to be on the team longer. Kai Havertz has been given his chance and the German player is starting to develop after a difficult first few months at Chelsea. Perhaps Tuchel sees Havertz as the best long-term option and thus worthy of playing in form. For now, Pulisic isn’t so lucky, and he won’t be able to remind anyone that he can contribute without playing time at his preferred position on the left.
But football is a fast-moving game, and Pulisic will have to think about his future if the remaining two months of the season will be analogous to the few minutes here and there.
These last two months are also very important for Chelsea, as the club is fighting for qualification for the Champions League. The draw at Leeds extended Tuchel’s unbeaten run to 13 games in all competitions, but the race for the top four is so tight that there could be two costly point losses as West Ham, Everton and Tottenham are all capable of beating Tuchel’s side if they each win their two games.
We had plenty of chances to score, Tuchel said. It was a solid game, but sometimes it’s hard to score points. We have to keep working hard and watch our opponents even more. It was not very pleasant to play, and the course is not in good condition – that is a factor. But we need to be more clinical.
Tuchel and Chelsea need all their strikers to contribute more in terms of goals and assists, so there is still hope for Pulisic. If he regains his form, he still has a chance to make a decisive contribution.
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