Soccer journalist Andrew Noland weighs the risks of the Premier League football club’s decision to acquire the American prodigy and how the move will affect the sport.
Last week, English Premier League club Chelsea bought American wunderkind Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund. In a startling $73 million transfer, a record for an American player, the 20-year-old winger will remain loaned to Dortmund until the end of the season, thus keeping Pulisic to contribute to Dortmund’s remarkable season. The Schwarzgelben have earned 42 points to launch themselves to the top of the Bundesliga table in 17 games and are six points clear of perennial powerhouse Bayern Munich.
However, while Americans celebrate the success of the best soccer player heralding from their side of the Atlantic in a generation and the future of the national team, it has raised serious questions about the transfer.
Critics have wondered why Chelsea decided to spend such an exorbitant fee on the American. Pulisic lost his place on the starting 11 to Jadon Sancho, an English sensation and Manchester City academy product, and the American has only given his team one goal and two assists in the Bundesliga. While he’s started every Champions League game, he’s only started five domestically, appeared in only 11 and his production slightly declined from a goal-assist average of 0.5 to 0.3. If Chelsea is looking to replace the aging Willian and Pedro, perhaps they could be an outlet for the struggling Malcom at Barcelona, consider a cheaper but riskier option from Fiorentina in Federico Chiesa, or even take a shot on their own youth talent Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Instead, Chelsea transfer director Marina Granovskaia places her faith, both professionally and financially, on Pulisic providing attacking options on the field and serving as a beacon for a still untapped American market. Pulisic has not retained success at Dortmund this season, many tacticians argue, because Lucien Favre’s counter-attacking strategy does not allow Pulisic to harness his creative potential in the attack. Tuchel’s high pressing system favored Pulisic’s ability to find space. Pulisic’s knack for cutting inside and stretching the channels augments Maurizio Sarri’s possession system in ways that both Pedro and Willian have not.
In short, Pulisic is a good fit at Chelsea, assuming his form can continue developing. However, as exemplified with stars like Romelu Lukaku, Mohamed Salah and, most embarrassingly, Kevin de Bruyne, Chelsea has the unfortunate reputation of squandering and eventually selling youth talent, only to have those players later play for rivals that smash Chelsea. It remains to be seen whether Sarri will continue that trend.
To make things even riskier, the Chelsea management has effectively ostracized Hudson-Odoi and also sent a clear message to the frustratingly indecisive Eden Hazard: you can take this transfer as either support or as your replacement. However, even if the Belgian superstar decides to stay at Stamford Bridge, and if the upper management abandon the lackluster Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata in favor of a consistent striker, Pulisic might not even round out the best front three in the city of London.
In conclusion, the Pulisic transfer is a massive gamble. If the American prodigy can rise to the occasion of playing in the toughest domestic soccer league in the world in the intricate Sarri-ball system, Chelsea has catapulted itself into a title contender for the 2019-2020 season. If not, he will be remembered as a $73 million flop. Management at Stamford Bridge is also betting that they can harness the latent potential of fans across the Atlantic by trumpeting Pulisic as a banner for Chelsea soccer.
However, American interest in soccer has never been able to carry past a World Cup, and Chelsea may find itself playing against the odds. Unfortunately, we have to wait until next fall to find out whether Pulisic can justify Chelsea’s move.