By Tom Bodell, Football Whispers
It’s been less than 24 hours since Chelsea head coach Maurizio Sarri revealed his desire for another winger.
Asked what Chelsea needed in the January transfer window, Sarri said: “Maybe another winger, because now we are in trouble with the injuries of Pedro, of [Callum] Hudson-Odoi and [Ruben] Loftus-Cheek. So I have the option for the striker [Hazard] but at the moment I have no option for the wingers.”
A late Christmas present? Extremely. The 20-year-old won’t actually join the Premier League side until the summer after it was agreed he would remain on loan with the Bundesliga leaders until the summer.
So where will the 23-cap US Men’s National Team wideman actually fit in at Chelsea? We’ve tried to answer that question for Sarri…
1. On the right of a front three
Blues boss Sarri has been unequivocal about his preferred formation, refusing to even consider the option of moving away from 4-3-3 in either the Premier League or UEFA Europa League.
However, not one spot in the forward line is nailed down. Only Eden Hazard is guaranteed to start but with Álvaro Morata struggling with fitness and form the Belgian has found himself filling in through the middle recently as a false nine.
Pedro and Willian have shared the spot on the right-hand side and, in an ideal world, Hazard would start on the left. Though such is the 27-year-old’s devastating dribbling ability he is not one to be shackled by the notion of a fixed position; at his best, he wanders free to devastate defences.
On the right is where Pulisic is at his very best. Despite making just 111 Bundesliga appearances for Borussia Dortmund this season, the 20-year-old is second among his peers for successful take-ons per 90 with 3.54. His two assists in 483 minutes are enough to rank him seventh among wingers in Germany’s top flight, too.
The dilemma for Sarri, though, will come over who misses out. Both Pedro and Willian have shown worth under the Italian tactician and shared the role with 11 and 17 top-flight starts respectively. But the versatility of all three men might play into Sarri’s hands.
2. As Eden Hazard’s replacement on the left
Chelsea’s maverick No.10 has been their standout player this season scoring ten times in 16 Premier League starts. At 27 and with his contract at Stamford Bridge up in June 2020, a decision over his long-term future will have to be made this summer.
Widespread reports suggest the Belgian schemer will move on after seven years in West London, with Spanish giants Real Madrid leading the chase for Hazard’s services. Given Chelsea’s remarkable success when it comes to player trading, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them cash in on their star asset, thus funding a revamp of Sarri’s squad.
That would leave the left-hand side of the front three open and Pulisic would be a candidate to succeed Hazard. While the Hershey, PA, native is naturally right footed he is no stranger to playing on the left and cutting inside. With the marauding Marcos Alonso behind him, the space opened up in that area could benefit the Spaniard.
3. As Maurizio Sarri’s next false nine
One of the defining features of Sarri’s Napoli side was the success of a false nine. While Gonzalo Higuaín enjoyed the best goalscoring season of his career as a more typical centre-forward under the chain-smoking tactician, scoring 36 goals in the 2015/16 season – more than any Serie A Capocannoniere has ever managed.
More recently Sarri has favoured a false nine. Dries Mertens was the big beneficiary of that change in Naples, netting 28 times in 2016/17 and hitting 18 last term as the Partenopei ran Juventus close in the race for the Scudetto.
Countryman Hazard has been utilised there this term – partially due to Morata’s injury problems but as much down to his continued lack of form in front of goal – but the Belgian is not sold on the role.
Could Pulisic, then, be the answer? Small, intelligent and capable of dropping deeper, he ticks a lot of boxes. However, the 20-year-old has never been a natural goalscorer. This season Pulisic has averaged just 1.3 shots per 90 while his expected goals per 90 score, which measures the quality of chances a player has, stands at a lowly 0.12.
4. As an eight-and-a-half between midfield and attack
It would represent a new challenge for Pulisic but there is no guarantee a vacancy will open up in his preferred position next season – especially if Hazard stays. However, in midfield there could be an opening which meets his skillset.
Ross Barkley started the season like a man with a point to prove but his form has tailed off and Real Madrid loanee Mateo Kovačić has been reinstated in recent weeks. However, the Croatian’s future at Stamford Bridge is far from clear as the Blues are not obligated to sign him permanently.
If they don’t, Pulisic would be a prime contender to play the Barkley eight-and-a-half role, similar to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at Liverpool, drifting out wide but also playing further ahead of the rest of the midfield.
With an insurance policy of N’Golo Kanté and Jorginho behind him, Pulisic would have the freedom to drift between the lines and link midfield and attack. He ranks 16th among Bundesliga midfielders for accurate through balls per 90 with 0.18 and is fourth for touches in the opposition box (5.96). Pulisic has the technical attributes and in Sarri there is no better teacher.