Can Christian Pulisic Possibly Live Up To The Hype?

Christian Pulisic made U.S. soccer history last week when he reached an agreement to join Chelsea in the coming summer transfer window. Borussia Dortmund, where Pulisic has played since 2015, will pocket $73 million for the rights to him — by far the largest fee ever for an American. But this transfer raises a number of questions: Is Pulisic worth the money? What can Chelsea expect from a young player out of the Bundesliga, and how well does the American fit his new club’s needs? How will Pulisic slot into manager Maurizio Sarri’s system, and what can fans expect to see from him in the coming years?

The first question is how to adjust for a transfer from the Bundesliga, the top tier of German soccer. Do we expect Pulisic’s production to drop off significantly from Germany to England? Given the players who have moved between the two leagues before, the answer is no.

Since 2010-11, 103 midfielders or attackers have transferred between the Bundesliga and the Premier League. Normalized for minutes, these players created about 371 expected goals and assists in the Bundesliga and 364 in the Premier League, based on data from analytics firm Opta Sports. That’s a difference of about 2 percent.

While there is variation, on average a player who creates attacking chances in the Bundesliga can be counted on to do the same in the Premier League.

With more than 6,000 minutes played before his 21st birthday, Pulisic is in rarefied air already. Since the 2010-11 season, only 47 players have more than 6,000 minutes played among one of the top five European leagues6 and the Champions League.

And even among that group, Pulisic’s production stands out. Here are players since 2010 with at least 2,500 minutes played before their age-21 season, sorted by expected goals and expected assists per 90 minutes, with strikers excluded.

Pulisic is one of Europe’s elite youngsters

European soccer leaders (excluding strikers) in expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes prior to turning 21 and nonpenalty goals plus assists for up to three seasons* afterwards

Through age-20 ages 21-23
Player seasons exp. goals + assists/90 minutes Seasons nonpenalty goals + assists/90 min
Ousmane Dembele 2015-17 0.60 2018 0.92
Mario Gotze 2010-12 0.57 2013-15 0.67
Dele Alli 2015-16 0.55 2017-18 0.61
Leroy Sane 2013-16 0.55 2017-18 0.90
Erik Lamela 2011-12 0.54 2013-15 0.43
Marco Asensio 2015-16 0.54 2017-18 0.41
Raheem Sterling 2011-15 0.54 2016-18 0.78
Keita Balde 2013-15 0.52 2016-18 0.76
Kingsley Coman 2012-16 0.49 2017-18 0.54
Yann Karamoh 2016-18 0.49
Philippe Coutinho 2010-12 0.47 2013-15 0.43
Richarlison 2017 0.46 2018 0.61
Goncalo Guedes 2015-17 0.46 2018 0.10
Xherdan Shaqiri 2010-12 0.45 2013-15 0.52
Julian Draxler 2010-13 0.44 2014-16 0.44
Christian Pulisic 2015-18 0.44
Eden Hazard 2010-11 0.43 2012-14 0.52
Malcom 2015-17 0.43 2018 0.70
Thomas Lemar 2014-16 0.42 2017-18 0.34
Roberto Firmino 2010-12 0.42 2013-15 0.69
Domenico Berardi 2013-14 0.42 2015-17 0.38
Lucas Ocampos 2013-14 0.42 2015-17 0.36
Florian Thauvin 2012-13 0.41 2014-16 0.43
Maxwell Cornet 2015-16 0.41 2017-18 0.74
Koke 2010-12 0.40 2013-15 0.48
Aaron Ramsey 2010-11 0.40 2012-14 0.52
Federico Chiesa 2016-18 0.40
Julian Brandt 2013-16 0.40 2017-18 0.41
Antoine Griezmann 2010-11 0.39 2012-14 0.57

* Season listed is the year in which the season started

Minimum 2,500 minutes played in the big five European leagues

Source: Opta Sports

Not every young star hits: Lucas Ocampos remains a capable but unspectacular Ligue 1 attacker for Marseille, Erik Lamela has struggled at Tottenham and faced major injury problems, and Xherdan Shaqiri stagnated for years before becoming a key cog in Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool squad this season. But on average, results are strong. In up to three seasons after their age-20 seasons, these players averaged 0.54 nonpenalty goals and assists per 90 minutes. That’s an improvement for their expected goals and assists numbers — players who are this good at 20 tend to get even better in their early 20s.

And as befitting that production, players like this tend to find their way to big clubs. Excluding the players currently in their age-20 seasons, 18 of 27 are regulars at teams in the Soccer Power Index top 20. Further, when players this young and this productive make their moves to big clubs, it’s expensive. Ousmane Dembele, Pulisic’s teammate at the time at Dortmund, cost Barcelona well over $100 million. Pulisic’s teammate-to-be Eden Hazard cost Chelsea only about $40 million in a less inflated market after his age-21 season. A few others came more cheaply — Inter Milan selling Philippe Coutinho for less than $15 million after the numbers he put up as a 20-year-old looks like a historically poor decision, while the less impressive futures of Ocampos and Domenico Berardi suggest the roughly $10 million fees paid for their services were more in line with their values. On average, the players on this chart who transferred within two years of their age-20 season cost about $44 million.

Pulisic’s future looks bright, and Chelsea’s fee is not out of line with what players of his pedigree tend to command. But one concern that arises here is that Pulisic’s best production came in his age-17 to -19 seasons. Now at 20, when he should be coming into his own, his production has declined from his usual 0.4 to 0.5 expected goals and assists per 90 minutes to less than 0.3. He has even lost starting minutes in the Bundesliga to Jadon Sancho.

The decline represents fewer than 1,000 minutes, and Pulisic’s total production including these minutes remains strong. But the drop is still concerning. The problem appears to be Pulisic’s role in the system of new Dortmund manager Lucien Favre. Favre prefers a more defensive and counterattacking system than the high-pressing, high-possession style of Thomas Tuchel, under whom Pulisic broke in. This year, Pulisic is playing much deeper on the pitch than he ever used to. Only about 8 percent of his open-play pass receptions have been in the penalty area or on the flanks near the penalty area, compared with about 13 percent in previous seasons with Dortmund. Instead, Pulisic has done much more buildup work, with 13 percent of his passes received in the central area of the defensive half, compared with 6 percent previously.

Pulisic is currently expected to contribute to a slower buildup style or help run counterattacks through the center, rather than making himself available as a passing outlet near the goal or near the endline. But it’s that latter skill where he has stood out.

Pulisic has averaged just fewer than 1.5 open-play passes received into the penalty area in his career so far. The most comparable players at such a young age are strikers — a few being among the best forwards in the world.

Pulisic is great at finding space

European soccer leaders in rate of receiving passes inside the penalty area per 90 minutes, among players prior to turning 21

Name From To Received passes inside penalty box per 90 minutes
Kylian Mbappe 2015 2018 2.15
Mauro Icardi 2012 2013 1.51
Christian Pulisic 2015 2018 1.41
Marcus Rashford 2015 2018 1.31
Mattia Destro 2010 2011 1.29
Maxwell Cornet 2015 2016 1.28
Leroy Sane 2013 2016 1.28
Raheem Sterling 2011 2015 1.26
Julian Brandt 2013 2016 1.24
Manolo Gabbiadini 2011 2012 1.24
Paulo Dybala 2012 2014 1.18
Gabriel Jesus 2016 2017 1.16
Timo Werner 2013 2016 1.12
Romelu Lukaku 2011 2013 1.09
Erik Lamela 2011 2012 1.09

Season listed is the year in which the season started

Minimum 2,500 minutes played in the big five European leagues

Source: Opta Sports

Pulisic does not look like a better prospect than Leroy Sane or Raheem Sterling in shot production. And he certainly falls behind strikers like Kylian Mbappe, Mauro Icardi, Gabriel Jesus, Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku in goal-scoring prowess. But what you get in Pulisic is good shot production and an elite ability to make himself available for passes in dangerous areas. In Favre’s system, where deep possession sequences around the penalty area are less common, his best skills are wasted.

Sarri’s high-possession Chelsea attack, however, might just be the perfect place for Pulisic’s game. At the same time, Pulisic may be just the attacker that Chelsea needs to get Sarri’s attack flowing. At Napoli, Sarri’s team completed elite numbers of open-play passes within or into the penalty area, 11.7 per match in his final season in 2017-18. But Chelsea this year has completed just 9.8 open-play passes in the penalty area per match despite a higher share of possession (61.9 percent) than Napoli had last year (60.3 percent). Favre’s Dortmund, with its less possession-heavy style, has only 9.1 of those passes per match. Pulisic may find the right fit for his skills at Chelsea, and the Blues appear to need a player with Pulisic’s ability to find space in the penalty area to execute their manager’s tactics.

While other Americans have found steady work in the English Premier League — Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride — none has commanded even close to the money that Pulisic has. All eyes will be him from day one. But Pulisic’s combination of production at a young age and skills that fit the needs of his new club make him a good bet to succeed even under international scrutiny.

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