He might only have been afforded 16 minutes off the bench against Malmo to make his first appearance for club and country since September, but this was still enough time for Christian Pulisic to show what Chelsea they have been missing, even if he managed to miss an open goal late on in stoppage time.
Indeed, the way Pulisic managed to skew wide of the near post after rounding the goalkeeper was evocative of the infamous Fernando Torres miss against Manchester United at Old Trafford all those years ago. That comparison is particularly pertinent because Pulisic still has to prove he won’t go down as an expensive flop at Chelsea like Torres did.
Signed by Chelsea for £58m two years ago, Pulisic has shown glimpses of his brilliance, including in his 16-minute cameo in the Champions League win over Malmo, but the American has struggled for consistency. He has generally found himself on the periphery of things at Stamford Bridge.
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Of course, much of this is down to Pulisic’s patchy injury record since joining Chelsea. The 23-year-old has started just one Premier League match this season after suffering a series of setbacks from an ankle injury. He also started just 18 out of 38 Premier League fixtures last season as he struggled for fitness.
With Chelsea in such good shape as Premier League pace-setters and reigning European champions, Pulisic might not be afforded much more patience to come good. Competition is stiff enough, particularly for attacking places, for Tuchel to cope without the American while the Stamford Bridge club might not wish to have a £58m asset in the treatment room for any longer.
It’s now up to Pulisic to prove he deserves to play. It’s not enough for a £58m player to be a rotational option, even in a squad as strong as Chelsea’s. He has the skill set to give the Blues something rather different in the final third, although Tuchel’s system means there isn’t a natural position for him.
Pulisic is most comfortable on the left side of a front three, but Chelsea have predominantly played with two central attackers behind Romelu Lukaku as the centre forward. In Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 shape, it is up to the wing backs to provide width and forward thrust, but Pulisic doesn’t have the defensive instincts to play here.
Therefore, Pulisic might have to adapt to a more central position, which he should be capable of given how Frank Lampard used him in behind a central striker more than once during his time as Chelsea boss. Or if Tuchel is willing to change formation, Pulisic’s return could offer him a different tactical option.
If Callum Hudson-Odoi, more of an orthodox winger than Pulisic, can find a role for himself in Tuchel’s Chelsea team, Pulisic can too. Timo Werner is another teammate the American could potentially dislodge, especially if Pulisic can strike up an understanding with Lukaku once he’s back. He mustn’t wait any longer to make himself a first team figure in blue. Injuries are obviously out of his control, but the 23-year-old can’t spurn any more opportunities when they come his way.
“He is very impatient, of course,” Tuchel explained recently when asked for an insight into Pulisic’s mindset having missed so much football. “He does everything and we can see him suffer in every meeting and every time we meet him here in our training centre, he is really suffering. He wants to be on the pitch and help us. Everybody is doing their very best, but unfortunately, the injury takes its time.”
That impatience must now be converted into good performances. Chelsea could use a different dimension in the final third with Tuchel’s team disjointed in their attacking play in a number of matches this season. Pulisic could be the solution, but the clock is ticking on him proving this.
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