Christian Pulisic Chelsea FC mystery remains as Thomas Tuchel explanation raises more questions than answers

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(Getty Images)

Thomas Tuchel’s explanation for Christian Pulisic’s continued absence from the Chelsea team presented more questions than answers.

“Maybe his biggest problem is that I know him from Dortmund,” he said curiously.

Most notably, in response to a different question, he added: “Whoever you see on the pitch deserves to be on the pitch.”

What is Pulisic to make of that?

When Tuchel says he knows him too well, is that a positive or a negative?

Does he mean he wants to see more of the players he has inherited at Stamford Bridge, whereas there is nothing else left to learn about the American?

Or does it mean he suspects Pulisic will not be able to fulfil a role required in his system at Chelsea?

He says Pulisic is “unlucky” on one hand, and then makes it clear that the players on the pitch are the ones who deserve to be there. That does not necessarily mean the forward isn’t deserving of a place too – but it would be understandable if that was the way he interpreted his manager’s comments.

It is a risky business second-guessing Tuchel’s motives when it comes to team selection.

He is an intensely methodical and pragmatic manager. He picks teams for specific occasions and his decisions are based on practicalities, rather than the price or profile of a player.

Marcos Alonso’s height saw him preferred to £50million Ben Chilwell against Burnley.

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Getty Images

The passing of the torch from Cesar Azpilicueta to Reece James has been halted, with Tuchel loath to lose the captain’s experience.

Callum Hudson-Odoi has been chosen over James at wingback for his greater attacking threat – and vice versa when a more defensive job is required.

Even N’Golo Kante’s place can no longer be assured.

Tuchel is proving himself to be Chelsea’s latest tinkerma,n and 11 games unbeaten justifies his methods.

Still, it does not offer an explanation for his treatment of Pulisic, who joins Emerson, Billy Gilmour and Willy Caballero as the only senior players not to be handed a start in the Premier League.

For a club that has consigned the most expensive goalkeeper in history to the role of back-up, perhaps nothing should surprise us.

But while £71m Kepa Arrizabalaga has failed to establish himself as a reliable replacement to Thibaut Courtois, there remains an expectation at Chelsea that Pulisic will be a star.

Signed for £58m from Borussia Dortmund, he was never going to fill the void left by Eden Hazard immediately – but he was a player with world-class potential, who was expected to help cushion the blow of the Belgian’s departure in 2019.

POOL/AFP via Getty Images
POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Frank Lampard had visions of him forming part of a formidable forward line including Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz that would lead a new era of success at Chelsea.

Injuries have disrupted his progress, with the club’s medical staff trying to come up with a strategy to avoid muscular issues that have troubled him. But he is fit and has been included in all but two of Tuchel’s squads so far.

Yet the FA Cup tie against Barnsley stands out as his only start; a substitute appearance in the 89th minute of Monday’s win against Everton is evidence of just how sparingly he has been used.

“I can say nothing else but good things about him,” said Tuchel when questioned by American broadcasters about a player who is an icon in the US. “It is my responsibility and it is a bit unfair, but I know what impact he can have in the last 20 or 30 minutes.

“He was a bit unlucky in the last few games. It isn’t a lack of trust or quality - it is just that he will have to be patient.”

Is that a case of damning with faint praise?

To suggest Pulisic can have an impact late on in a game also raises questions about his ability to influence from the start.

What is most puzzling about Tuchel’s handling of him has been his clear struggles to balance his attack.

Werner, Ziyech, Havertz, Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount, Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham have all been switched and shuffled as he has tried to come up with the most effective front three.

Pulisic has been conspicuous by his absence.

Werner has led the line, played wide left and right.

Mount and Havertz have been deployed as false No9s – and Hudson-Odoi has been moved from wing-back to wide forward.

At no point have Pulisic’s qualities been tried out from the start against top flight opposition.

Where he fits in if Chelsea are successful in their pursuit of Erling Haaland is another question. With more of a traditional target man to aim for, Tuchel may find more use for Pulisic as a provider of bullets for the Norwegian – but that has not been the case when Abraham or Giroud have been deployed up front.

If Tuchel’s knowledge of a player he helped nurture at Dortmund means he has a plan as to how he will fit into Chelsea’s forward puzzle, there is little sign of it yet.

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Getty Images

“If you play in competitions like the Premier League and Champions League and the cups, there is no way you have 11 players in your head,” he said. “I want to have the choice and when I have the choice sometimes it is a tactical decision.

“So there is a reason for every change and you cannot just say ‘I trust you guys.’ If you trust them, you have to let them play.”

Which only raises further questions over Pulisic’s continued absence.

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