Christian Pulisic’s injury gives Chelsea teammates an opportunity to seize their chance

If anything offers a sign of the increasingly fringe role Christian Pulisic plays in the wider Chelsea dialogue, it might just be how infrequently Thomas Tuchel has addressed the U.S. international and his injury woes in press conferences.

At the time of writing, the European champions have only two players sidelined due to injury, but in Tuchel’s pre-match press conference ahead of Wednesday’s EFL Cup, there was no question on Pulisic’s recovery, despite the initial assessments of a 10-day absence pointing to a return at Stamford Bridge Thursday night. Instead, others who may yet rival him for a first-team place, not least Ruben Loftus-Cheek, stole the opportunity.

It is all the crueler for Pulisic, whose first two seasons had shown flashes of excellence that were disrupted by nagging muscular issues. When asked to set a goal for himself in an interview with CBS Sports before the start of the season, he spoke of his desire to be consistently available, a player “who makes a big impact to help the team win.” For some that might seem like PR speak, but after so many setbacks, it seemed a goal worth setting.

Unfortunately, it has gone unfulfilled and that is as much down to misfortune as anything within Pulisic’s control. A COVID-19 diagnosis kept him from building on a goalscoring start to the Premier League season against Crystal Palace before an ankle injury sustained in a World Cup qualifier against Honduras where he was the subject of robust defensive treatment set him back further.

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Pulisic had not returned to training by the end of last week, when Tuchel confirmed that the player was likely to miss out against Aston Villa. In total, he has played just 159 minutes of club football this season, but it has been more than a month since he has donned Chelsea blue.

It is hard not to fear that, in terms of form and fitness, Pulisic finds himself locked into something of a vicious cycle. It seems unlikely that he will start either of Chelsea’s next two matches, top-of-the-table clashes in the Premier League and Champions League against Manchester City and Juventus, respectively. You can stream the Juve match on Paramount+. As such, the best-case scenario before he joins up with the USMNT might be a few minutes off the bench here and there and perhaps a more extended appearance against Southampton before the international break.

Then it is off to three high-stakes qualifiers in six days, games where a heavy burden will be placed on one of the USMNT’s best footballers. Opponents as illustrious as Real Madrid have come up against Pulisic and concluded that the best way to stop one of the game’s most direct forwards is to foul him consistently. Why wouldn’t Jamaica, Panama and Honduras follow suit? In last season’s Champions League, of players to play more than 150 minutes and suffer more than five fouls, only Neymar was brought down more frequently by the opposition than Pulisic.

That ability to draw opponents in and either drive by them or force them to foul him is what has made the American international admired by so many for so long. Tuchel does not have a player who attacks opponents as frequently as Pulisic, who attempted nearly six take ons per 90 minutes in the Premier League and Champions League last season. The nearest regular to him in those rankings was Mateo Kovacic on 3.3.

For the time being, any fears over Pulisic’s Chelsea career feel a little premature. Early in Tuchel’s tenure, there was speculation over a potential departure from Stamford Bridge — Bayern Munich have been tracking him for some time — but that was swiftly quashed. Even set against the gaudy attacking riches in blue shirts, he offers his club something different with his direct attacking play. 

The talent is indisputable, but he is not available often enough to show what he can do. If Tuchel cannot call on Pulisic, he has plenty of other options to make do with. In what was almost entirely a second-string side to take on Villa, the likes of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech started while Saul’s placing on the left of the front three adds another option to a deep spot in the Chelsea roster. Ruben Loftus-Cheek might have played in the midfield pivot, winning plentiful praise from his manager during the game, but he will also be an option for the front three.

All of those players have the one thing that has evaded Pulisic for most of this season: An opportunity to prove themselves to their manager. Tuchel will not need telling of the 23-year-old’s quality — he was the one that gave him his debut as a teenager at Borussia Dortmund — but sooner or later he could do with the sort of helpful in game reminder that is eluding Pulisic for now.

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