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Breaking down Pulisic’s competition at Chelsea

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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.

Arsenal overrun West Ham with 3 second half goals

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Who saw that coming?

With three goals in a nine-minute span in the second half, Arsenal overcame a one-goal halftime deficit to comfortably beat West Ham, 3-1, on Monday night at the Olympic Stadium. It was a complete reversal after a second half where Arsenal didn’t attempt a single shot on target in the first half and were second-best in winning duals and second balls.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

But it was the Arsenal stars who helped the club when it was effectively on its knee, facing a tenth-straight match without a win. Goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe and youngster Gabriel Martinelli secured all three points for Arsenal.

On the other side, West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini is in a whole host of trouble. West Ham sits just one point above the relegation zone after 16 league matches, and Pellegrini was expected to take the Hammers to the next level.


Three things we learned

1. Arsenal stars finally step up: With Arsenal on the verge of another demoralizing defeat, the club’s expensive strike force helped turn the tide in the second half. Martinelli, Aubameyang, and Pepe all played a huge role, and their goals, arguably against the run of play, were more than enough to inject some excitement into the club.

2. No Luiz, No Problem: Arsenal may have found its new starting centerback combination. After multiple error-prone performances with Sokratis playing alongside David Luiz, Arsenal boss Freddy Ljunberg went with Calum Chambers to partner Sokratis. The end result was a much more organized backline, and fewer mistakes, leading to fewer allowed goals.

3. Pellegrini on the hot seat: Pellegrini will have a nervous few days ahead of him. Despite a rare win over Chelsea last week, West Ham has now dropped successive defeats, first to Wolves and now Arsenal, leaving West Ham on the edge of relegation. Could Pellegrini last until January?

Man of the Match: Arsenal’s defense deserves credit, but goals win games, so Man of the Match has to go to Nicolas Pepe. The Ivory Coast international absolutely earned his massive transfer fee on Monday, scoring a beautiful curler and then setting up Aubameyang with a chip into the box.


This story will be updated.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

 

 

At the half: West Ham lead struggling Arsenal

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They say in derbies that form goes out the window, but it didn’t seem that apparent for Arsenal on Monday evening.

West Ham United is 45 minutes away from a second major win in three Premier League games as the Hammers hold a 1-0 halftime lead over Arsenal. Angelo Ogbonna’s headed goal off a Pablo Fornals cross is the difference so far.

After two straight poor performances for Arsenal, manager Freddie Ljungberg must have hoped for a better reaction in a London derby. Instead, Arsenal has been slow in passing, slow to second balls and not as determined as West Ham to win. Every possession gained is giving West Ham confidence, which led to the goal. The goal came after a couple of pinball rebounds following a corner kick, but the Hammers’ determination to score helped them go in front.

To make matters worse for Arsenal, Kieran Tierney suffered another injury, forcing him off the field in the first half and compelling Ljunberg to bring on Sead Kolasinac, despite him being short on fitness too.

Arsenal has a massive 45 minutes ahead. Should West Ham win, it would go level with Arsenal. If the Gunners lose, it’s their 10th straight match in all competitions without a win and it drops them into the bottom half of the league table.

Watch Live: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Arsenal will be searching for their first win since firing Unai Emery as manager when they visit West Ham United, who could use a win in the worst possibly way themselves, at the London Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Gunners have drawn one — coming back from a goal down, twice, against Norwich City — and lost at home to Brighton & Hove Albion on Thursday. It’s hardly been an ideal start to life under interim boss Freddie Ljungberg. As a result, they enter Monday’s game sitting 11th in the Premier League table.

As for the Hammers, Manuel Pellegrini is beginning to feel the pressure after winning just one of his side’s last nine games (1W-2D-6L). Following that exceedingly poor run of results, West Ham sit 16th in the PL table, just one point clear of the relegation zone.

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Messi’s hometown offers emotional trip to his childhood

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ROSARIO, Argentina — Soccer wasn’t always Lionel Messi’s favorite activity.

When he was a child in the modest neighborhood of La Bajada in his Argentine hometown of Rosario, he spent his time bicycling with friends, building forts out of branches and stones, playing hide and seek – and occasionally stealing lemons from a neighbor to make juice.

Those stories and others are the focus of a new tour being offered by Rosario to celebrate their 32-year-old hometown hero, an international sports superstar who just won an unprecedented sixth Golden Ball as world soccer’s player of the year.

The tour put together by Rosario’s city hall is free of charge and available in an app translated into several languages, guiding fans through 10 stops.

Few houses are higher than two stories in La Bajada, a middle-class neighborhood in the city that is 186 miles (300 kilometers) northwest of Buenos Aires.

Halfway down Israel street stands a gray house, closed off by shut curtains and protected by railings. There is no sign outside indicating it was Messi’s home, and no one lives there now, though it still belongs to his family.

The neighbors aren’t so shy about the Messi connection, however. Colorful paintings dedicated to the soccer star stand in front of houses and there are sidewalks colored in the blue and white of Argentina’s national team with Messi’s jersey number, 10, painted in black.

Messi’s neighbors and friends are often willing to share stories with visitors.

“Leo was normal and ordinary like other people here,” Diego Vallejos, one of Messi’s childhood friends, told The Associated Press on a sandy soccer field of the El Campito club as three youngsters played soccer.

“We fell, we scratched ourselves riding bikes. We went to the street with water bombs and threw them at buses,” said Vallejos, who is one year older than Messi.

Also are on the tour are the school Messi attended and the Abanderado Grandoli club, where he learned his first soccer moves.

The city long had a somewhat distant relationship with Messi, and officials say the tour seeks to change that. Rosario’s city hall said Messi’s family did not take part in the creation of the tour.

“What we want to emphasize is that Leo is a product of his city, and that there is a life and many stories behind the superstar,” said Santiago Valenti with Rosario’s tourism agency.

Messi was born June 24, 1987, in the Hospital Italiano Garibaldi in Rosario. He lived in the city until 2000, when he moved to Barcelona.

A recently opened sports museum, a few blocks from Messi’s old house, offers an interactive tour of the lives of local stars in racing, boxing, basketball and soccer.

Messi’s section of the museum is introduced by a painting that mixes monuments from Rosario and Barcelona, and the sentence: “All that I did, I did for soccer.” Two giant screens display goals and testimonials from his teammates.

“The idea is not to pay a tribute to his sporting success,” said museum coordinator Juan Echeverría. “It is to value the path he walked, everything that an athlete has to go through to get to the tip of the iceberg that we see when he is on the podium.”

The museum has contacted Messi’s family and the player’s father said he would donate more memorabilia.

One of items on display is a small red coat with a white collar. Below it is Messi’s official register as a Newell’s Old Boys academy player and a picture of him smiling.

Downtown is the Malvinas compound where Newell’s has its soccer academy. It was there the young Messi was filmed out-dribbling much bigger opponents.

“This is where it all started,” said Lisandro Conte, an employee at the academy.

Messi did not play for Newell’s. “At that time there were players who looked more promising, and the bet was placed on them,” Conte said.

Still, Messi has said he wants to finish his career at Newell’s, playing for his hometown club in his own country after a professional career in Barcelona’s storied Spanish league team.

Fans visiting Rosario might even be able to catch a match between teams like the recent clash between Newell’s and arch-rival Rosario Central. Among the 14 youngsters chasing the ball might be Rosario’s next star.