As Chelsea struggled to find an attacking flow at Villa Park in an eventual 3-1 win on Boxing Day, it felt as if the Blues didn’t have a striker on the pitch from the opening whistle.
That’s because they didn’t.
Christian Pulisic, deployed as the center forward in a 3-5-1 formation by Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel, was utterly invisible through his 45 minutes on the pitch up front. U.S. fans surely saw this coming, already aware that Pulisic’s impressive skill set does not include things like hold-up play, positioning between center backs, and aerial proficiency.
Romelu Lukaku came off the bench at halftime and slotted in up front instead, and the Blues looked more like a Champions League-caliber team against a mid-table side, eventually picking up all three points. But it’s noteworthy that the American international was used at two unnatural positions in the match, struggling mightily in one of them.
How did Pulisic perform against Aston Villa?
Those aforementioned deficiencies were on display at Villa Park, as Pulisic was feeding on scraps up front supported by Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi plus the bombing wingbacks in Reece James and Marcos Alonso.
By halftime, Pulisic had received just nine passes and had taken zero shots, while also unsuccessful on his two take-on attempts and his two aerial duels, plus an unsuccessful tackle. It was a brutal 45 minutes from the American, who was clearly not deployed in a position in which he excels.
One word could accurately describe Pulisic’s minutes at striker at Villa Park: Invisible. But Chelsea was still level at 1-1 thanks to a penalty earned by Hudson-Odoi and converted by Jorginho.
— Simon Johnson (@SJohnsonSport) December 26, 2021
Following the halftime break, Pulisic was switched to right wingback upon the introduction of Lukaku, who came off the bench for the second half. It was a confusing substitution, as many — including NBC studio analyst Robbie Mustoe — expected Lukaku to come on for Pulisic directly.
Instead, Tuchel removed right center back Trevoh Chalobah, who had a fine first-half performance, moved Reece James to center back, and stuck Pulisic at right wingback. The American was far more involved out wide, and while that still isn’t the natural position for Pulisic — he rarely opted to serve as an overlap option, instead pinching in and getting stuck surrounded by defenders — it’s clearly an area of the pitch where he feels more comfortable.
The second half was far better from the entire Blues squad, and Lukaku scored the go-ahead goal just 11 minutes after halftime. Pulisic had very little defending to do against left back Matt Targett, with Villa choosing to attack mostly down the opposite flank.
Why was Pulisic playing striker for Chelsea?
The 23-year-old was deployed up front due to a lack of attacking options stemming from a COVID-19 outbreak at the club that was mostly concentrated among attacking players.
Timo Werner and Kai Havertz missed their second straight match after testing positive for COVID-19, while Romelu Lukaku was on the bench having also tested positive earlier in the month but recovering in time to make the substitutes list.
That left Pulisic as the next-best option up front, with Mount and Hudson-Odoi tucking in centrally and the wingbacks providing width.
Time for the main action! 🎬
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) December 26, 2021
Tuchel knew that he wasn’t exactly setting Pulisic up for success. At his pre-match press conference prior to the Villa match, Tuchel said, “It’s good for Christian to have minutes. Is it his best position where he feels most comfortable? Probably not. But in the moment he is doing well, he’s fighting hard for the team and to gain confidence and to get a flow for the games. While he is fighting, we are supporting him and there is absolutely no problem there.”
Pulisic himself believes he’s got what it takes to perform in that off-brand role, speaking on it about a month ago and saying: “I think I can play in a lot of the attacking positions within this team, maybe not on the ball as much as I usually am or able to use some of my strengths, but I think it’s a position I can play. I think you can create a lot of space for your teammates, and I’m happy to play there as well.”
Pulisic transfer rumors continue to heat up
While Pulisic will be pleased to go the 90 minutes in search of his best form after missing lengthy stretches due to injury and COVID-19, performances playing out-of-position won’t do much to calm the swirling transfer rumors.
Pulisic made at least 25 Premier League appearances in his first two seasons at Chelsea and has nine this season with injury and illness contributing to a stop-start nature to this season. He’s not exactly been a regular in the Chelsea lineup, but when used in more familiar positions behind the forward, Pulisic has been sensational, and arguably underappreciated for his contributions.
That, combined with Pulisic’s contract status — his deal expires in 2024, meaning this summer could be the time for the Blues to sell, unless they allow him to reach the final year of his deal without a solution — has allowed rumors to gain steam.
Barcelona has been named as an interested party, and while the rumors indicate a desire from the Spanish side to push for a January loan, it feels unlikely Chelsea would allow Pulisic to leave this season without a replacement lined up. With the Blues pushing for a Premier League title and still alive in the Champions League knockout stage, it seems far more reasonable that Chelsea would discuss a deal for Pulisic in the summer when other options are more accessible.
It’s also less likely Barcelona will be involved for another attacking player in January after reportedly spending big to snatch Ferran Torres from Manchester City.
It was only a year ago that Tuchel took over Chelsea and the Blues embarked on a memorable run to a Champions League title, an FA Cup final and fourth place in the Premier League table. Pulisic played a decisive role in key games, and a similar run could change Chelsea’s long-term plans for him.