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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Sorry, Man City — The Premier League Title Is Liverpool’s To Lose

The Premier League season is barely halfway over, but the title basically could be decided this week. Right now, Liverpool has a 7-point lead over Manchester City at the top of the table.1 The two teams face off Thursday at Etihad Stadium in Manchester, and a Liverpool victory would result in a likely insurmountable 10-point gap.

Only two weeks ago, Liverpool’s lead was just 1 point, 45 to 44. And at the beginning of December, it was Manchester City in front, with a 2-point cushion. But the holidays were a nightmare for City. Manager Pep Guardiola saw his team lose easily winnable matches at home to Crystal Palace and away to Leicester City, while Liverpool swept its holiday fixtures. If you had watched these events from the perch of FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index projections, you would have experienced severe whiplash. Not only did Liverpool open up a lead out of nowhere, but the projections remained extremely bullish on City’s chances right until the bottom fell out.

Before City went into a slump, what made the team such a dominant title contender? And what happened to drop its chances so dramatically?

Through October and into November, Manchester City’s underlying statistics were otherworldly good — they had analysts wondering whether this might be the best team in Premier League history. The Soccer Power Index projections are based on precisely these underlying numbers, and they reacted proportionately. The expected goals differential — the difference between expected goals for and against — shows Manchester City more than plus-2.5 per match in October and solidly more than plus-2.0 right until mid-December, based on data from analytics firm Opta Sports.

This slowdown appears to be driven by two related factors: a decline in performance by the team’s aging midfield stars and injuries to key players.

During Manchester City’s record-breaking title season in 2017-18, the team’s preferred midfield used Fernandinho as the defensive midfielder at the base and David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne as “free eights,” more advanced midfielders with the freedom to make runs in and around the penalty area but who are ready to lead the press should possession be turned over. The trio played together for more than 50 percent of City’s minutes in the league, and at least two were featured in more than 90 percent of the team’s minutes.

De Bruyne has been unavailable most of the year because of two successive knee injuries. He has not fully recovered, missing the Southampton match this weekend. With the Belgian playmaker out, Man City has been able to play its first-choice midfield for only 35 total minutes this season, compared with more than 1,800 last season. And Silva and Fernandinho, as important as they are to City’s chances, are 32 and 33 years old respectively. Both have needed rest, and both suffered muscle injuries in late December. In Man City’s losses against Crystal Palace and Leicester City, neither Silva nor Fernandinho made the starting lineup.

Man City’s biggest problems, then, seem to boil down to personnel. The heavy workload already had strained Fernandinho in his difficult role as the lone defensive midfielder, and then injuries left Guardiola with almost none of his preferred midfielders. Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva are good players, but they have not been able to properly replace Fernandinho and David Silva.

This is good news for City fans: Fernandinho and David Silva are back, and they dominated Southampton en route to a 3-1 win. De Bruyne may even be ready to join them Thursday. We should expect a Manchester City with a fit midfield to be more than good enough to win a home match against Liverpool and keep the title race going.

At the same time, Man City fans still have cause for concern. Given the ages of David Silva and Fernandinho, another slowdown or injury is hardly unlikely. And with City looking at a deep run in the Champions League,2 the team’s performance level cannot be expected, on average, to remain in its early season stratosphere. Expected goals differential still shows City as the best team in the league, but the margin of its advantage over Liverpool from October is unlikely to return.

This gives Liverpool every chance at its first league title in decades. And the Reds are here because they have become the smartest-run team in England. Liverpool lost a key creative midfielder, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, to a serious knee injury at the end of last season. But high-level replacements were already lined up. The club had reached an agreement with RB Leipzig the previous summer for the transfer of creative dynamo Naby Keita, and over the summer Liverpool added another creator in Xherdan Shaqiri as well as Fabinho for defensive midfield depth. Keita has struggled with his fitness; for a player who was clearly the best dribbler in Germany, his 0.2 progressive runs per 90 minutes show that Liverpool still hasn’t seen his best. But the Reds’ clever business strategy means they could weather a slow start. Shaqiri has been revelatory — with six goals, two assists and a team-leading 4.1 progressive passes per 90 minutes — and Fabinho has settled in solidly at defensive midfielder.

Liverpool has made steady improvements as the season has gone on. The Reds continued a trend I noticed last year, in which the team has gradually pulled back on its high press while improving defensively. This year, while the team’s mere eight goals conceded reflects some good fortune, its average of 0.81 expected goals conceded per match (about 16 expected goals allowed total) is the best of manager Jurgen Klopp’s tenure. And Liverpool has done it with its least aggressive midfield press of the last four seasons, breaking up less than 49 percent of new opposition open-play possessions within three passes.

Klopp has acknowledged this somewhat more pragmatic style as a tactical choice to get the most out of his team over a full season. Against Manchester City away, coming off a full slate of holiday fixtures, Liverpool will need to draw on this newfound defensive pragmatism. City should look to dominate possession, but Klopp’s tactical developments at Liverpool have helped build a team that can control matches without the ball. And if City’s aging midfield makes a misstep or if Fernandinho finds himself isolated or out of position, Liverpool’s devastating forward three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah will make him pay. The quality of Liverpool’s attack, especially in the open field on the counter, is such that even a fully recovered Manchester City could be caught out and defeated.

City is favored on Thursday for good reason. But over the full season, City looks more fragile than Liverpool, which has been built into a deep and tactically variable unit with smart analytics and coaching. If Man City can maintain the fitness of its 30-something midfield stars, it has the advantage, but that’s a big “if.” With just more than four months remaining in the season, another dip in form or fitness from City’s midfield is likely, and that plus a lead of at least 4 points would probably be enough for the Reds. Klopp’s side could put the title to bed Thursday, but even if City gets the win, Liverpool should still be favorites to lift the trophy.

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