After an uncertain start to life under the new Chelsea coach, the American has stepped up since the international break with four goals in six starts
Thomas Tuchel spent his first two months as Chelsea manager tweaking his starting XI and learning about his squad. Christian Pulisic was one of those on the fringes but he has now made himself impossible to leave out.
Whenever Pulisic was given chances in Tuchel’s early days, he was unable to take them. His finishing was wayward and he couldn’t carve out a place in the manager’s thoughts. And that was despite working with Tuchel previously at Borussia Dortmund.
Away at Real Madrid in the Champions League, after a 1-0 win over West Ham just three days earlier, Tuchel named an unchanged line-up for the first time since he took over.
It appears as though Tuchel is giving his most in-form and trusted players the chance to take Chelsea over the line in the final weeks of the season – in a three-pronged attack on the Champions League, FA Cup and Premier League.
Pulisic, Mason Mount and Timo Werner have established themselves in attack, with Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz capable alternatives.
While Werner and Mount have long since been in the manager’s preferred line-up, Pulisic’s presence as a starter wasn’t assured until after the March international break.
He admitted that being with the United States restored his self-belief and left him feeling ready to tackle the final weeks of the club campaign.
“I think it did help to go away and get some games in with the national team,” Pulisic said when questioned by Goal ahead of the trip to Madrid.
“I definitely always enjoy that and coming back, I felt very confident and I still feel that way. It is just about keeping up this form and helping my team to win these big games.”
Since returning to club duty, Pulisic has gone on to score four times in his past six starts. His most recent strike was his most important, giving Chelsea an away goal at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium.
In doing so, the 22-year-old became the first American to net in a Champions League semi-final.
And not only does he carry the weight of being his country’s standard-bearer, he must also deal with the pressure that comes with being constantly compared to Chelsea legend Eden Hazard.
“He was an incredible player at this football club of course,” Pulisic said via Zoom from the Blues’ training ground on Monday. “I definitely looked up to him. I am not comparing myself to him in any way or trying to be like him.
“I am my own player, doing my best for this club. He was a massive player for this club and it is an honour to hear comparisons like that, but I still have a ways to go.”
There are undoubtedly some similarities between the two. They are both wingers and they are both excellent dribblers.
It was notable that Pulisic drew yellow cards from Marcelo and Vinicius Jr in the teeming Madrid rain on Tuesday night. Yet, almost every other aspect of his game is different to that of Hazard.
Pulisic’s goal on the night was not very Hazard-like in the build-up, with the former showing the instincts of a striker to chase a long ball forward.
Earlier on, Pulisic also demonstrated his aerial ability – winning a far-post header to present Timo Werner with a massive chance that the German missed.
“Today, we are sad, we are angry at the moment, this is normal,” Tuchel said of his side’s frustration at failing to capitalise more on a dominant opening half-hour in Madrid.
“He [Werner] is angry. He may be disappointed. [Wednesday], he has a free day and the next day he has to put his chin up. He is a professional guy, a top guy, he works hard.”
Even though Werner has always been a starter under Tuchel, his inconsistency in front of goal leaves him more vulnerable than Pulisic to being dropped for the return leg.
“This is the highest level,” Tuchel said. “Sometimes, if you have such a good half an hour as we had, with chances and half chances, you wish for more composure and more precision in the decision-making and finishing itself.”
Hazard faced his former club from the bench, but few will be pining for him back at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea don’t have a like-for-like replacement for their former playmaker, but they don’t miss him either because of the form of Mount and – increasingly – Pulisic.
Pulisic proved last season that he could end a campaign well, scoring seven in the last 11 games, as he became Chelsea’s post-lockdown star.
If he stays clear from injury, then he has every chance of repeating the trick as Chelsea chase titles in Europe and on the home front.