Getty Images

Breaking down Pulisic’s competition at Chelsea

2 Comments

Christian Pulisic has gone three Premier League games without seeing the field. An unused substitute again at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea topped Brighton 2-0 on Saturday, the 21-year-old told NBC Sports that his lack of playing time is “very frustrating” and that “it is tough for me right now.”

Frank Lampard is under no obligation to play the American despite his hefty $73 million price tag on the move from Borussia Dortmund over the winter. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at the performances of his competition at Chelsea and determine whether the Blues boss is making the right decision in keeping Pulisic on the bench.

There seems to be at least four other attacking players above Pulisic in the depth chart: Experienced international wingers Willian and Pedro, and youngsters Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Here’s a closer look at each player’s season so far.

Mason Mount

The 20-year-old England youth international has exploded onto the scene this campaign, forced into the rotation due to Chelsea’s transfer ban. He has taken his chance marvelously, proving a massive threat to opposition defenses on the ball. The sample size is still small, but Mount is currently rated as WhoScored’s 14th best player so far this season with an impressive 7.45 rating. He has delivered three goals thus far, and has produced over two key passes per game and just under two successful dribbles per game.

Lampard has begun to deploy Mount more centrally, pairing him in midfield with Ross Barkley and allowing him to venture forward. He created three chances against Brighton last time out and won the penalty that saw Jorginho put Chelsea in front just after halftime. There is no doubt that in his current form, Mount should be starting every match for Chelsea at this point, and Pulisic can have no qualms about sitting behind the fellow youngster.

Pedro

Since arriving from Barcelona in 2015, Pedro has been a versatile player that has seen significant time under a host of different Chelsea managers who have all noticed his value. Playing as a true winger, a central creative force, or a wing-back in various formations, Pedro has been able to contribute in a number of ways.

This season, Pedro has been of decent quality. He started slow against Brighton last time out but ended up with a solid overall performance, testing the goalkeeper a few different times and creating opportunities for his teammates. Still, that was his first league appearances since August and he was withdrawn for Hudson-Odoi after an hour. Lampard doesn’t seem to fully trust the Spaniard. His appearance in the lineup against Brighton instead of Pulisic was probably the most surprising given his lack of playing time thus far, but he proved a valuable asset.

Willian

Willian provides an experienced foil to the youthful Mount and Hudson-Odoi (Getty Images).

While a hamstring problem carried over from summer international duty limited him early in the season, the 31-year-old Brazilian has seen significant playing time over the last month. Racking up three straight 90-minute showings in a row in league play, Willian is a trusted servant for Frank Lampard early on. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat difficult to determine why.

Aside from the demolition of Wolves in which he was brilliant, the performances have been quite spotty for Willian thus far. While his passing accuracy is 80 percent this season, a closer look shows a host of square passes well outside the box that inflate that total. Against Brighton, Willian added little creativity, especially in the first half when Chelsea as a whole struggled to produce much of anything. Still, he came away with the game’s second goal, a tight-angled strike out of basically nothing that was deflected in and punished poor one-on-one marking and even worse goalkeeping.

Another key part of Willian’s game is his defensive contributions which often can neuter his overall attacking threat. He came away from the Brighton with four completed tackles on the right flank, an impressive total for a winger. A look at his performance in the loss to Liverpool shows he was pinned back by his defensive duties for much of the game, and when he did get forward he was unable to produce much, completing just two of his six attempted passes in the penalty area and failing to come away from the match with an official chance created. Willian is a good squad player, but he hasn’t exactly dazzled in the early going. His fans will say he’s never been a dazzling player, and that’s a fair retort.

Callum Hudson-Odoi

Just having returned from an Achilles injury, the 18-year-old is clearly a fabulous talent. With the Blues having rejected Bayern Munich’s advances. There’s a feeling of obligation to play Hudson-Odoi now that Bayern has been rebuffed to confirm the club’s commitment to his future. Still, there’s a reason he sees the field. In 30 minutes against Brighton, he picked up an assist and proved valuable defensively, completing two tackles in two attempts and completing 21 of 24 passes. It wasn’t an inspiring passing chart, but Chelsea was playing with a lead the entire time.

Plenty remains to be seen here how he gets on after returning from injury, but as a huge talent that has already broken into the England senior squad, there’s little reason to think he won’t see a lot of the field.

The verdict:

This is a difficult one to analyze as aside from Mason Mount, there are plenty of question marks remaining among those in front of Pulisic on the depth chart. Willian and Pedro are older, experienced players who don’t light up the field but managers love them for their dedication to the team effort and game plan, while Hudson-Odoi has plenty to prove on his way back from injury but figures to be given the chance to do so.

Given the unknowns, there’s no reason to think Pulisic can’t work his way back up the ranks. Chelsea is clearly committed to youth this season, and there is plenty of incentive to develop Pulisic into a regular contributor given his promise, his age, and the club’s financial commitment. Eventually, it’s logical to think Willian and Pedro will be phased out in favor of the younger attacking players.

Let’s also remember, Christian Pulisic isn’t the only good player struggling for time at Chelsea. Jorginho has proven an improved asset at Stamford Bridge, while Kante has also struggled with injury, the improved play of Jorginho has enabled Lampard to be careful with the French midfielder, confirming Kante missed the Brighton squad with a hamstring problem that left Chelsea to be cautious. Had Jorginho not been playing so well, Kante may have been risked.

While it’s natural to panic over Pulisic’s small workload early on – and certainly frustrating for the player given his phasing out at Dortmund at the hands of Jadon Sancho – it’s not time to push the big red button. Lampard has clearly told Pulisic to improve his training, and nobody but the team knowns what goes on there. All we can judge is what happens on the field, and until someone at Chelsea struggles greatly and deserves to be replaced, it’s tough to see a way back in for Pulisic in the short-term.

Bentaleb joins Newcastle; Blades sign Robinson; Campana to Wolves

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three Premier League clubs made signings on Tuesday as Nabil Bentaleb has joined Newcastle United, Leonardo Campana has arrived at Wolves and Jack Robinson has signed for Sheffield United.

Bentaleb, 25, has initially joined Newcastle from Schalke on loan with an option to make the deal a permanent one at the end of the season.

The former Tottenham midfielder will add extra quality to the engine room as Steve Bruce‘s side continue to sit pretty in midtable despite a laundry list of injuries to deal with.

“I’m very happy to come back to the Premier League, especially with a club such as Newcastle,” Bentaleb said. “The project really interested me. I wanted absolutely to come back to the Premier League. The coach had some trust in me and the club also – I saw that straight away – and I think it’s the perfect move for me.”

Bentaleb has so much promise and showed that as a youngster for Spurs and for Algeria at the 2014 World Cup and he was a regular at Schalke over the past few seasons before falling out of favor during the 2019-20 campaign as he is yet to make an appearance due to suffering a torn meniscus in September.

Wolves have been trying to complete the deal for Campana for some time but everything is now sealed for the Ecuador international to arrive in the Premier League.

Campana, 19, has been a star for Ecuador at youth international level and he’s signed a three-and-a-half year deal with Wolves to become the understudy to Raul Jimenez. He rose to prominence at the South American U20 Championships last summer as the top goalscorer at the tournament as Ecuador won the title. He has already graduated to the full national team and he is ready to get going in England.

“I am excited about the work the team has achieved this season. I know they support each other, their relationship with the manager is a good one and I know all the players get along really well. That motivated me to come here and to be part of this big family,” Campana said.

As for Robinson, 26, he arrives on a two-and-a-half year contract from Forest for an undisclosed deal as Blades boss Chris Wilder revealed he tried to sign the left-sided center back when he previously played for QPR.

“It’s a big confidence boost coming somewhere you know you’re wanted,” Robinson said. “The gaffer has done an unbelievable job over the last 3 years and I’m really excited to play under him. It’s a privilege to sign here, excited to be back in the Premier League I’m ready to show the fans why the gaffer has signed me.” 

Robinson, a Liverpool academy product who made his debut for them as a 16-year-old, will be one of Wilder’s three center backs and is keen to perform the overlapping role in Sheffield United’s quirky but hugely effective system.

Both of the signings are fairly prudent ones but bolster squads which need it after fine starts to the season as both Wilder and Bruce need extra players as they aim to push for at least a top 10 finish in the Premier League.

Mourinho denies bust-up with Rose

Getty Images
1 Comment

Jose Mourinho has denied he has had a training ground bust-up with left back Danny Rose.

Reports had circulated that Rose and Mourinho were involved in a heated argument in training on Monday after the England left back was unhappy to be left out of the squad for the 0-0 draw at Watford on Saturday.

Mourinho had said that Rose was out injured with a back problem but the left back has since denied he wasn’t fit to play against the Hornets.

Speaking to the media ahead of Spurs’ home game against Norwich on Wednesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com), Mourinho wasn’t having any of it.

“I don’t know what you mean by tension in the air, I don’t have a problem with him,” Mourinho said. “On the Thursday before Watford late evening I got a call from my medical staff saying that Danny was calling them with a problem in his back and he wouldn’t train the next day. Friday it was a bit of a surprise to see him training, but even so I decided to play with (Japhet) Tanganga and have Ryan (Sessegnon) on the bench. That is the situation.”

Mourinho added that Rose’s display against Liverpool was “not phenomenal” and reading between the lines, he was dropped.

If there wasn’t an incident or at least some anger between Rose and Mourinho, why would reports of this nature surface?

With youngster Japhet Tanganga starting at left back for Tottenham, and doing a very good job as Mourinho praised him afterwards, it is understandable that Rose would have his nose put out of joint a little.

The England international has less than 18 months left on his current contract at Spurs and has already spoken publicly about his plans to run down that deal as chairman Daniel Levy hasn’t offered him a new deal.

It will be intriguing to see how this plays out as Tanganga now seems to be Spurs’ first choice left back and Rose will have to be happy with playing a bit-part role between now and the end of the season.

His experience and quality is undoubted but with Spurs’ defensive unit all over the place this season, Mourinho is well within his rights to mix things up with formations and personnel as he tries to make Tottenham tough to beat.

Solskjaer: United have made “strides forward”

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ole Gunnaer Solskjaer believes his Manchester United side have taken “strides forward” following their 2-0 defeat at bitter rivals Liverpool on Sunday.

United were outplayed for the vats majority of the game and were lucky to be only 1-0 down heading into the 90th minute but the grit and determination they showed impressed Solskjaer who lauded his young team.

Without the injured star duo of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba for the daunting trip to the Premier League leaders, United’s manager was in a positive mood ahead of their clash against Burnley on Wednesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

“We lost to Liverpool. A team that you all say are fantastic and we’ve been in the game until the last kick of the ball. For me, that’s strides forward,” Solskjaer said. “Of course we’re disappointed about losing the game. We don’t want to be behind them in the league. But there are signs there that we’re on the right track, definitely.”

Is Solskjaer’s positivity misplaced?

Some would argue that United were lucky that Liverpool’s finishing was lackluster and that is true but the Red Devils hung in there and should have equalized in the second half but Anthony Martial blazed over.

They were missing at least four or five players in key areas for the trip to United as Rashford, Pogba and Scott McTominay were out injured and they badly need another attacking midfielder (ahem, Bruno Fernandes) to help with their play in the final third.

Solskjaer is right, there were positives for United. Fred played extremely well in midfield and both Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka stood tall defensively out wide. But the main takeaway from their trip to Liverpool was that United were delighted to not lose by three or four goals. The gulf in class between the two teams was clear for all to see and although United are trying to sort out their disjointed and confused squad by signing young, talented players, they are so far off Liverpool it is scary.

USMNT youngster Vassilev praised by Villa boss

Getty Images
Leave a comment

18-year-old USMNT youngster Indiana Vassilev has been praised by Aston Villa boss Dean Smith after making his Premier League debut at the weekend.

Vasillev came on for the final 25 minutes at Brighton and Hove Albion with Villa 1-0 down and helped them rescue a point as his run opened up the chance for Jack Grealish to score a late equalizer.

The lively attacking midfielder/forward has excelled in Villa’s reserve side after his arrival in England in the summer of 2018 following impressive displays for the U.S. youth national teams.

With Villa struggling with injuries up top after main striker Wesley went down with a season-ending injury early this month, Smith is clearly ready to put his faith in Vassilev.

“He is definitely ready to start,” Smith said. “The kid’s a bright spark, and we’ve seen that when he’s come on so far. He gave them (Brighton) problems on Saturday when he came on. It was a super ball from Douglas but, unless Indi makes that run down the side, he doesn’t drag Webster across, and Jack get in for the goal. He knows what he’s doing up there, he’s got a lot of pace, and he can run all day as well.”

Villa’s boss didn’t stop there though, as he also revealed that the young striker born in Savannah, Georgia has the backing of the senior players around him to go on and become a regular contributor in the Premier League.

“I’ve never been afraid to go and put young kids in if I feel they’re ready. I congratulated him after the game and said, ‘You’re a Premier League player now.’ He’s surprised me in a good way,” Smith added. “Sometimes when you give an opportunity to a young player they can sink or swim. He is certainly a swimmer. He has looked really good so far. You can always tell how the reaction is through the other players, in their relationships with them. You can see them all behind him. He goes in and puts a shift in for them. If you do that and have quality to add to it you will do alright in the dressing room. He’s got a goalscoring ability, he knows where the back of the net is, he knows what runs to make. Tactically he’s intelligent. Physically he’s impressive as well.”

Vassilev comes from a long line of soccer players and his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all played in Bulgaria and he was born and raised in the USA after his parents emigrated from the eastern European country in the early 1990s.

It looks like the USMNT have another top talent breaking through in Europe which is great news for Gregg Berhalter and potentially even better news for Villa as they badly need a forward to deliver goals in their fight against relegation from the Premier League.

Expect to see more cameos, and maybe even starts, from Vassilev in the final months of the Premier League season.