By James Nalton.
Christian Pulisic’s right-footed cross from the left wing during Chelsea’s recent meeting with Norwich, curling away from the defence towards the goal and into it via the head of Olivier Giroud, was the American’s first assist since football returned following lockdown.
Despite the solitary figure in the (official) goals created column, Pulisic has assisted his team in a number of different ways since #ProjectRestart manifested itself in actual games of football, not least by making them better to watch.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that he has been the outstanding player since the return of the Premier League, with a nod to Manchester United’s attackers, the generally unstoppable Kevin De Bruyne, and also the job Michail Antonio has been doing up front for West Ham. There are others, too, but none catch the eye quite as immediately as Pulisic.
That said, the instantly apparent aspects of the 21-year-old’s game won’t always be reflected in stats such as goals and assists, though he does have three of the former since the restart.
When trying to measure why such a player catches the eye, it might first be useful to think about what makes them so entertaining when they take to the field.
Pulisic does everything quickly, with more of a dart than a sprint. He has a lightning directness, matched by few players in world football, that the very best attackers in the game nearly always posses.
Even if this straight-forwardness can sometimes result in a loss of possession due to being crowded out, if the second ball can be won, his team-mates are usually in space as a result of the attention he’s attracted from opposition defenders.
His acceleration off the mark makes him one of the best players to watch, and USMNT supporters are justifiably giddy about the Hershey, Pennsylvania-born player, who has been their great hope since bursting onto the scene as youth international prior his move to Borussia Dortmund in 2015, aged 16.
Jürgen Klopp, then head coach at Dortmund, said of Pulisic that: “he can kick the ball around really well.”
A typically straightforward, almost comical (especially when taken out of context) comment from Klopp, but it does hint at another Pulisic trait that is pleasing on the eye — his two-footedness.
In the Premier League this season, 21% of his passes have been made with his weaker left foot (FBref), while 39% of his shots (not taking into account headers) have been taken with his left (WhoScored).
In all competitions this season, Pulisic has scored four goals with his left foot and three with his right.
When this two-footedness is combined with the aforementioned direct running, quickness, and dribbling ability from that left inside-forward position shown in the graphic below, it poses a real problem for opposition defenders.
The data is good at backing up the eye test when it comes to highlighting his use of both feet, but how can directness be measured?
Using data from Wyscout via Twenty3, it is possible to look into Pulisic’s game in more detail.
The most noticeable stat that fits with having watched the American during these last seven games is that, since the restart, he leads the Premier League for progressive runs, with 31.
A progressive run is defined by Wyscout as one in which the player advances at least 30 metres if the run occurs entirely in their own half, at least 15 metres forward if it spans both halves of the pitch, or at least 10 metres forward if the run starts and begins in the opponent’s half.
This stat complements his take-ons completed post-restart (37) for which he ranks third in the league, and the fact he tops the charts for accelerations (20) during the same time period.
Things like shots attempted (19, fourth in the league), attacking actions attempted (86, fourth), link-up plays attempted (74, first), and a total post-shot expected goals score of 2.76, add more detail to help complete the overall picture of post-lockdown Pulisic.
Digging a little further, his assists stats can be increased to three if penalty wins are included, as seems fair given their importance, with spot-kicks won against Watford and West Ham leading to goals for Willian.
Make it four if free-kick wins which lead to goals are added, as his foul won against West Ham resulted in another goal for Willian from the set-piece.
Add them all together, plus his goals, and this gives Pulisic seven goal contributions in seven games since the Premier League restarted.
In terms of raw football talent that can translate into success at the top level, Pulisic is probably the most promising player the United States have had in the men’s game, and their most gifted since Clint Dempsey.
In his first season at Chelsea he’s gone from settling in, impressing greatly but only in flashes, seeing his place in the side threatened by the imminent arrival of Timo Werner, to his current status as one of the most in-form players, not just at Chelsea, but in the entire Premier League.
This is testament to something which has always been one of his biggest strengths — his mentality. Add this to the data and descriptions included here, and the sky is the limit for the young attacker who is heading, directly and impressively, for great things.