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Christian Pulisic

Pulisic out to put Chelsea struggles behind him by taking USMNT lead role once more

5:30 PM IST 26/01/22
Christian Pulisic Chelsea 2021-22
The 23-year-old has been used sparingly and in a variety of unfamiliar positions for the Blues this season, leading to a drop in performance level

As Christian Pulisic arrived back in the United States this week, he did so with the soccer hopes of a nation on his back.

Though he may not quite be the "LeBron James of soccer", as one viral video star put it, Pulisic remains the leader of the U.S. men's national team, and the player expected to produce the moments of magic that will book the team's place at the 2022 World Cup.

Gregg Berhalter's side faces three matches in the space of seven days, starting with Thursday's clash against El Salvador, with Pulisic set to be the centre-piece while playing off the right-hand side of the forward line.

It is a role Pulisic both prefers and has excelled in throughout his career, though not one he has played much during a difficult winter at Chelsea.

For the first time since his £58 million ($78m) move from Borussia Dortmund in 2019, Pulisic has been able to retain his fitness for a prolonged period at Stamford Bridge, which in turn should have allowed him the chance to nail down a regular position in Thomas Tuchel's team.

Instead, he has made just 19 appearances in all competitions for the Blues in 2021-22, the fewest of all their senior attacking players, and he averages just 55 minutes on the pitch per game, owing to him either being a substitute or regularly one of the first starters who is replaced by Tuchel in the second half of matches.

Not only that, but Pulisic has also been forced to play in a number of different positions, the majority of which he is new to, and as such his performance levels have dipped.

Chelsea's Covid-19 crisis that saw them lose all three of their recognised central strikers in December meant that Pulisic was forced to fill in as a No.9 for a spell, while he has found himself playing as a right wing-back on a number of occasions, too.

The 23-year-old even had to fill in at right-back after Cesar Azpilicueta suffered cramp against Tottenham in early January in what is one of seven positions he has played in since the start of the campaign.

It is admirable how Pulisic has never complained and continued to work hard when he is on the pitch, but there is no doubt that the lack of consistency in his role is hurting his form.

"I like him [Pulisic] a lot, but I don’t want to see him at right wing-back because he hasn’t got a defensive bone in his body!" former Blues full-back Glen Johnson told GOAL at the start of 2022, and it is likely Pulisic shares that view.

"I think I can be very effective on either of the wings,"Pulisic said in a 2019 interview with the official Chelsea website following his arrival, adding: "Really, any of the attacking positions I can be comfortable in. I was most comfortable on the wings at Dortmund."

He has just three goals and three assists to his name this season, falling way below the output expected of a player with his talents, while the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi look to have leapfrogged him in the pecking order.

As such, it can often seem like Pulisic is more important to Chelsea in a ceremonial sense, rather than on the pitch.

For example, in the aftermath of being an unused substitute in Sunday's crucial 2-0 win over Tottenham, Pulisic could be seen posing pitchside with a New York Yankees jersey as part of a promotional effort to reach the lucrative fanbase in the U.S.

Given the money that was spent on him, though, as well as the undoubted ability that he possesses, he should be much more than that, and as such Tuchel has questions to answer regarding a player who thrived under his tutelage at Dortmund.

Is Pulisic's form down to him being used incorrectly, or is he not performing well enough to justify starting in his favoured role on a regular basis?

"It's true we moved him around a little bit, but in the end, the players want to play, and it's a good thing if they can play more positions," Tuchel said when the question of Pulisic's displays was put to him by GOAL.

“You can always argue he would have been more consistent or better if he had one clear position, but maybe then he has fewer minutes or he faces even more competition, because up front we have two or three players in every position.

“We are happy with the impact that he has. He can play a lot of minutes, he needs to play a lot of minutes, he has a physical ability that can help us.

“Of course everybody wants him to have numbers, everybody wants him to be effective, and - like everybody - we can improve on that. And from there we go, this is the situation.”

Pulisic will hope, then, that the coming week will offer him a little respite from the puzzle that his Chelsea career is becoming.

His role, as well as the team's aims, are clear when it comes to the USMNT. Playing a starring role to put them on the cusp of World Cup qualification would be the perfect way to put his winter of discontent to bed.