Barnsley, England — When Christian Pulisic left the field in the 80th minute of Barnsley’s fifth FA Cup 1-0 victory over Chelsea Oakwell, the American captain looked like a man who had just left an audition with the impression that he had forgotten his lines.
At least the 22-year-old contributed to one important victory and helped Thomas Tuchel’s side to a place in the quarter-finals at home against Sheffield United next month after Tammy Abraham’s goal in the 64th minute – a shot that was deemed possibly offside but could not be tested by VAR because the English Football Association has strangely opted for a system used only in the Premier League. But although Pulisic played his part, he was as unconvincing as Chelsea’s combination. The only time he seemed happy was after the end of a cup match, when he was on the pitch having a chat with Barnsley striker and his American teammate Daryl Dyke, before walking into the visitors’ dressing room.
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After Pulisic became a key player for former manager Frank Lampard in the second half of last season, the former Borussia Dortmund star struggled in his second season in English soccer and that memorable evening in Barnsley summed up his difficult campaign. He was not alone in his disappointment, however, and Tuchel’s assessment of Chelsea’s performance was clear.
“It lacked sharpness and it was too deep for a long, long time,” he said after the game. “Obviously we can play better, so yes, I expected more, but not in the sense that I’m disappointed.
“When you lack pace and a bit of confidence and you have to show that on this pitch, against an opponent who takes all the risks and plays the game of his life, it’s not easy. We can do better, but I don’t want to be too hard on the players.
Injuries deprived Pulisic of a clear playing routine and his form was affected accordingly. He has scored only twice in all competitions this season and has not scored in 13 appearances since the 3-1 win over Leeds United in December.
But on a night when Tuchel, who replaced the sacked Lampard last month, made 10 changes to his starting lineup, Pulisic was lucky to start his season. It was his first start under Tuchel, who made several substitutions for this match, and the opportunity was clear: to make a good impression and increase his chances of a place in the starting lineup against Newcastle United in the Premier League this weekend.
On the pitch, however, things did not work out well for Pulisic. In the first half, he was lined up on the left side of the three strikers, only to switch to the right after the break.
Fault. Film pass specified.Christian Pulisic struggled to make an impact during his first steps under new coach Thomas Tuchel. Robbie J Barratt – AMA/Getty Images
Through no fault of his own, Pulisic played the entire match on the side of the field that had large areas of abandoned mud, making it difficult to control the ball and make some passes. Maybe that’s why the ball was passed to him so often, because Chelsea preferred to play in midfield or on the other side of the field to maintain control, but whatever the playing field was, Pulisic needed to do more.
The American was inspired by two things: an interaction with Billy Gilmour that led to a misplaced pass to Abraham, and a running action in midfield that ended with a tame goal attempt after Pulisic played a one-two with Callum Hudson-Odoi. The second half was even quieter for him as Chelsea pulled away, but when he was replaced by Mateo Kovacic, Pulisic could have given Tuchel much more time to think about his next selection.
Tuchel certainly knows Pulisic well, having worked with the fifteen-year-old at Dortmund. The new Chelsea coach knows what his protégé has to offer and knows Pulisic’s strengths and weaknesses. So he will have a chance to compete for a starting spot, but the competition at Stamford Bridge is fierce.
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Last season Lampard was already struggling early in the campaign, but the arrival of Timo Werner, Hakim Zieh and Kai Havertz this summer has only increased the battle for the top spot. Werner and Havertz have been given a day off at Barnsley, but the German duo must also prove they deserve their own starting spot. Unlike those two, Pulisic has at least proven himself in the Premier League.
But it was a missed opportunity to remind his manager and teammates of his potential. Against a team that finished second in the Championship, Pulisic could have made headlines and set Chelsea on fire.
At the end, nobody in Chelsea’s shirt really stood up and led the way. They did their job and avoided the humiliation of the 2008 FA Cup here at Oakwell, but it wasn’t just an impression. And it was disappointing Pulisic on a night when he could have made a big statement.
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