These are tough times for Christian Pulisic at Chelsea. The United States captain is fighting for his future at Stamford Bridge, but even on the rare occasion that he gets the chance to impress coach Thomas Tuchel, the odds appear to be stacked against him.
For the first time since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as manager in January, Pulisic was given a place in the starting XI of a Premier League match, for Chelsea’s clash against Leeds United at Elland Road. It was only his second start in Tuchel’s 12 games in charge and just as with his first — a 1-0 win at Barnsley in the FA Cup — the 22-year-old didn’t last 90 minutes.
At Barnsley, Pulisic was given 80 minutes against the Championship team on a heavy, muddy pitch at Oakwell and understandably struggled to stand out from the crowd. And against Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, he was played out of position, having been tasked with a right-midfield role by Tuchel.
When he was substituted in the 68th minute of Saturday’s 0-0 draw, Pulisic bore the expression of someone who was partly relieved to have been taken out of his misery and partly annoyed at having been asked to play on the opposite side of the pitch to where he is most effective. He was withdrawn having had just 42 touches of the ball — 27 fewer than Ben Chilwell had on the other flank up to that point — and he won just 20% of his one-on-ones.
Just 24 hours earlier, Tuchel had spoken of the need for Pulisic to be patient, describing him as an “important player who has the potential to be decisive for us.” Tuchel should know, having been the man in charge at Borussia Dortmund when Pulisic made his debut for the German team as a 17-year-old. Indeed, Tuchel has admitted that his familiarity with Pulisic’s strengths and weaknesses might be counting against the player right now because he still recalls how useful he can be as a substitute, saying: “I know what impact he can have in the last 20 or 30 minutes.” Tuchel also said of Pulisic before this game that “it is the moment to step up for him,” but the German did not make it easy for the forward.
Pulisic has been around the block too long to accept being considered merely a player who can change games from the bench. He showed his quality during the second half of last season, when he scored five goals in 11 games for Chelsea after football’s post-lockdown restart, so he will find it difficult to accept being relegated to a bit-part player now.
Injuries have halted Pulisic’s progress throughout this season, but he has been fit for the majority of Tuchel’s time in charge and has been involved in nine of the new manager’s 12 games at the helm.
In total, he has clocked up 275 minutes on the pitch during Tuchel’s 1,080 matchday minutes — just over 25% — so it has clearly been a challenge to make an impression when given such little time to make an impact. And that was evident at Elland Road, where Pulisic performed like a willing player but one whose confidence is so fragile that he is unable to do anything beyond the bare minimum.
There were times when he could, and should, have gone past his marker, Ezgjan Alioski, but instead chose to cut back and make a simple, and safe, pass. At the same time, Tuchel was barking orders from the touchline, telling Pulisic where to run and when to pass, and, when the American failed to take notice, he would show his disapproval with exaggerated arm-waving and head-shaking. But that is Tuchel’s style, and Pulisic is not the only Chelsea player to bear the brunt of his demanding personality. Only last month, Callum Hudson-Odoi had to endure being substituted as a substitute before being accused by Tuchel of not doing what was expected of him.
Yet by playing out of position on a poor pitch — Elland Road’s surface was only marginally better than Barnsley’s — Pulisic’s battle to win over his new boss becomes so much harder.
What he needs is the chance to have an extended run in the team. Kai Havertz has been given the opportunity, and the German player is beginning to thrive after having such a difficult first few months with Chelsea. Perhaps Tuchel regards Havertz as the better long-term option and therefore worthy of the chance to play himself into form. Right now, Pulisic isn’t getting the same chance, and he won’t succeed without time on the pitch, in his favoured position on the left, to remind people of what he can contribute.
Football is a game that moves on quickly, though, and Pulisic will have to consider his future if the remaining two months of the season follow a similar pattern of the odd few minutes here and there.
Those final two months are also big for Chelsea, with the club locked in a scrap for Champions League qualification. This draw at Leeds may have extended their unbeaten run to 13 games in all competitions, but so tight is the race for the top four that it could prove to be two costly dropped points with West Ham, Everton and Tottenham all able to go above Tuchel’s team if they each win their two games in hand.
“We had enough chances to score,” Tuchel said. “It was an OK game, but sometimes it is hard to score. We have to keep on working hard and be more precise in the opponents’ box. It was not so nice to play, and the pitch is not in good condition — this is a factor. But we need to be more clinical.”
Tuchel and Chelsea need all of their forwards to contribute more, in terms of goals and assists, so there is hope yet for Pulisic. If he can rediscover his form, he still has the ability to make a crucial difference.