Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Leeds vs. Chelsea: Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Brenden Aaronson among USMNT stars on opposite paths

It ought to be the easiest of narratives. Christian Pulisic, the great trailblazer of a particular type of American talent in England, facing off against the men who are following in his footsteps. There is just a slight sting in this particular tale. Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams will likely see the Elland Road pitch in a meaningful way on Sunday. There are, however, precious few guarantees their USMNT captain will.

Right now the question is how many games might Pulisic have left in a Chelsea shirt. Manchester United, scrabbling around for any players who can enhance their faltering squad, want to take him on loan while Newcastle United have coveted him for much of the transfer window. It is not entirely clear how eager the Stamford Bridge side are to strengthen the former, a theoretical rival for a top-six finish, while close links between the two boardrooms could give Newcastle the upper hand if their interest crystallizes into a serious offer.

Chelsea are willing to listen to offers. Pulisic is also believed to be open to the possibility that a Stamford Bridge career that has shown such flickers of promise might be at an end point. If he does go, he will leave with medals aplenty and a nagging sense of what might have been. That was typified on the run to Champions League glory in the spring of 2021; Pulisic laid on an assist in the second leg of the round of 16 tie against Atletico Madrid before scoring and assisting across two legs as Real Madrid were defeated. And yet the only time he was able to complete the full 90 minutes was in the second leg against Porto with the tie already seemingly won.

Pulisic’s Chelsea career so far has been one riven by injuries. Include COVID-19 and he had 12 separate issues that forced him out of contention in three years. Not once did he play more than 30 Premier League games or 1,800 minutes, nor did he start more than five straight games in all competitions after his first season. Give him a head of steam and he could prove to be devastating; when the Premier League returned from lockdown in the summer of 2020, he was among its best players. He was a man who seemed destined to carry his side to FA Cup glory against Arsenal before, of course, injury struck.

It would be harsh to judge Pulisic’s Chelsea career — assuming it does end this month — as a failure in absolute terms. It might have been better, but of all the attacking midfielders Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel have had to choose from, no one scored more frequently in the top flight than the 23-year-old, who averaged a goal every 251 minutes. The player who arrived as a fast dribbling creator who could assist and score has morphed into something more like a penalty-box poacher, averaging a third fewer touches per 90 minutes but without anywhere near as significant a drop-off in his expected goals. Chelsea’s attacking play runs through Kai Havertz and Mason Mount; Pulisic has developed to offer what they don’t.

Equally, because he is subservient to those two, he has to fit around them, often at wing back or as a first reserve — a role that seems to be his best option at Stamford Bridge now that Raheem Sterling has arrived to deliver a more high level version of what his American teammate has offered of late. He is a player whose arrival Tuchel championed, around whom plans might be made in much the same fashion as Lampard built his Chelsea team to exploit Mount’s qualities. Pulisic, signed midway through Maurizio Sarri’s one season and loaned back to Borussia Dortmund, never had the same champion on the coaching staff.

His possible departure does not necessarily mean that Tuchel does not rate him. The U.S. international started both of last season’s cup finals and the German hailed his forward in November, telling CBS Sports of his “certain quality, attitude and spirit that would help any team in the world.” But what is he to do when Pulisic is so infrequently available? 

Chelsea, meanwhile, have had to make plans without him. If the signings of Havertz and Timo Werner felt more like Roman Abramovich stretching his financial muscles at a time of European football poverty, Sterling seemed like a clear plan for Chelsea to upgrade on Pulisic. Might things have been different if the American had found greater fitness, the ultimate prerequisite for greater form, over the last three years? Quite possibly. But the reality is this was never going to be an environment conducive to his development.

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The contrast with Leeds is pronounced. There, Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams arrived in the summer to find a manager who knows them both acutely, Jesse Marsch, but also a club structure that had admired them even before they appointed an American coach.

In both cases, there was a clear vision for the role the player would play when they were recruited, even if it meant thrusting significant responsibility on players aged 21 and 23. Aaronson effectively succeeded Raphinha on the right side without having to shoulder the Brazilian’s heavy load in attack. The same could be said in midfield where Adams and Marc Roca look like they will be asked to share the heavy burden the system of former Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa placed on Kalvin Phillips. Their head coach trusts them implicitly to carry out those roles.

“What I can say about Adams and Aaronson are that they are two of the best people I have ever worked with,” the Leeds boss said. “They are still young, they have massive potential and they fit really well into the culture of what the club is and what the team is.”

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the initial returns from two Premier League games have been welcome; these two players seem to fit Leeds like a glove. Aaronson might have had a debut goal for Leeds but for a nick off Rayan Ait-Nouri while no one can question him on the off-the-ball work on which he prides himself. Indeed, no one in the top flight has pressurized the ball carrier as frequently as the 21-year-old, who has attempted 57 pressures in 174 minutes of football.

That suits Marsch’s system to a tee, but as the U.S. manager attempts to blend the all out energy of Bielsa’s team with something less draining, he has a lieutenant on the pitch who can react when his team mates press forward. Marc Roca laid out Adams’ qualities to BBC Radio Leeds after Saturday’s draw with Southampton. “I’m feeling very good, very comfortable with him,” the Spaniard said of his fellow summer signing. “I think he is an incredible player. I think the connection we have is very good. When I’m going, when I’m pressing, he is behind me, looking for what could happen.

“For me as well, I think the relationship is very good. Every day we understand each other better and I think we are helping the team.” Adams’ job is to close down from behind the press and so far he is doing so effectively, sitting in the Premier League’s top 20 for tackles and interceptions whilst also ranking highly for middle third pressures. Having coached him at New York Red Bulls, it is a job that Jesse Marsch knows his new signing can do. The same is true of Aaronson.

Whatever comes from Sunday’s result, these young Americans know their role, playing for a head coach who trusts them to do it on a weekly basis. The contrast with their international team mate — who may well not be on the pitch with them — is sharp.

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How to watch

Matchup: Leeds vs. Chelsea

Date: Sunday, Aug. 21 | Time: 9 a.m. ET

Location: Elland Road — Leeds, United Kingdom

TV: USA and Telemundo | Live stream: fuboTV (try for free)

Odds: Leeds +470; Draw +325; Chelsea -180 (via Caesars Sportsbook) 

Featured Game | Leeds United vs. Chelsea

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