By Adam Brandon.
Last year, as the Copa America in Brazil approached, many pundits and journalists in Chile questioned why the key defensive midfielder of their golden generation, Marcelo Diaz, hadn’t been selected in the squad for La Roja’s defence of the title.
By the end of the tournament, they had their answer.
As Chile’s ageing stars showed signs of fading, Erick Pulgar really began to shine as the deepest man in Chile’s three-man midfield (4-3-3). He played every minute of the campaign and he was Man of the Match in the impressive quarter-final win over Colombia that Chile eventually won on penalties. He was also Chile’s best player in their humbling 3-0 defeat to Peru in the semis, a night where few Chilean players escaped criticism.
Those performances have set the 26-year-old up to be Chile’s midfield lynchpin over the next few years as Chile look to qualify for the World Cup again having missed out on Russia 2018.
His club form has been impressive too, especially given he has been part of an underperforming Fiorentina side this past year. He has often anchored the midfield for La Viola and displayed an eye for a pass and a nose for danger.
Pulgar is primarily a defensive midfielder that is as good on the ball as he is off it. Wyscout rank him as the best defensive midfielder in Serie A this season.
He has created an impressive 81 chances this season in Serie A, which puts him among the best chance creators in Europe, while his key passes per match (2.2) is enough to put him in the top 20 in Europe’s top 5 leagues (WhoScored), both of these stats are boosted by his delivery from set-pieces.
The most prolific chance creators across Europe’s top 5 leagues, featuring Jack Grealish ahead of Lionel Messi …. pic.twitter.com/UpRDhZ5kOm
— Peter McKeever (@petermckeever) August 5, 2020
Pulgar, as with many Chileans post their Copa America final penalty shootout successes, is a very reliable penalty taker. This has boosted his stats, with six of his seven goals this season for Fiorentina coming from the spot. For a defensive midfielder he gets in many promising shooting positions, but his shots often lack power, yet he does often force a keeper into a save at least.
His world-class delivery from corners has meant he has registered seven assists in Italy this season. Five of them have come from the left side with Pulgar using his right foot to swing the ball into the centre of the box – this is somewhat a signature set piece for Pulgar and Fiorentina. While the other two were outswingers from the right, one to the near post, and one to the far.
Both his goals and assist tallies are his best since moving to Europe, and provide further evidence of a player in the ascendency.
His delivery at dead ball situations improved under the coaching of Siniša Mihajlović at Bologna last year and the Serbian praised the Chilean for his dedication in training.
“It is not as easy to shoot penalties as Pulgar shoots them, Mihajlovic told El Grafico last year. “Regarding free kicks, I can already say that he is better than me.
“I have no doubts about his abilities and qualities. Since I’ve been at Bologna, Pulgar has shown the right attitude every day in training”
Stats alone only tell half of the story, as Pulgar can only be truly appreciated by watching his positional sense and his ability to anticipate danger especially in transitions.
He provides great coverage of the pitch whether he is utilised as the man sitting just in front of a back three or slightly higher on the right side as part of a flat midfield four or five.
Chilean players can often be late developers, fellow international midfielders Charles Aranguiz and the aforementioned Diaz did not find their way to Europe until the second half of their careers having spent the first half in South American football.
Pulgar left Chile when he was 22 years old and is on a sure and steady climb to the top. A four-year spell at Bologna saw him mature and go under the radar in Europe and in his homeland, few realised what a key player he was becoming in one of Europe’s toughest leagues.
As he was emerging in Chile with Deportes Antofagasta and Universidad Catolica, few in Chile would have predicted his current level of performance in Italy, but not necessarily because they thought he lacked the talent.
Pulgar is a figure of controversy in his homeland, especially in the Northern mining city of Antofagasta where many feel he should have served a prison sentence for a hit and run incident when he was 18-years-old. He was also said to be involved in numerous incidents in and outside nightclubs around this time adding to his negative image.
But the move to Italy appeared to mature the player on the field and he has managed to keep out the headlines for the wrong reasons off the pitch since mid-2017 where he was accused of being involved in an altercation in Antofagasta.
Since signing for Fiorentina last year for €10m, his stock has only risen further and he now appears to be at the peak of his career. The player has been linked with moves to Atlético Madrid and Real Betis in recent weeks, while a number of Premier League clubs are said to be monitoring his situation closely.
Given his age, excellent consistent performances backed up by the stats as well as his relative affordability, it is somewhat a mystery why he isn’t the most sought after midfielder in Europe right now.
+18, New UK and Ireland customers only, begambleaware.org, T&Cs apply