Christian Pulisic (17) from Hershey, Pennsylvania might not be as big a name as the chocolate coming from his hometown just yet, but he’s probably the Borussia Dortmund youngster who’s the closest to the senior squad, as his Bundesliga debut against Ingolstadt on Saturday proved.
Pulisic got promoted to the first team during this winter break and his debut on Matchday 19 in front of 80.000 football fans in the Westfalenstadion. Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel was seemingly pleased when he was asked about the 17-year-old after the match: “It’s a pleasure to have him with us. He always wears a smile on his face and although he seems to be a little shy he is always very aware of what is going on. He showed a top match today.”
What an honor making my Bundesliga debut.. So thankful for all the support! Happy to get the 3 points as well #bvb
— Christian Pulisic (@cpulisic_10) 30. Januar 2016
In his debut against Ingolstadt Pulisic played on the left wing, but his technique and training allows him to very versatile, as can play on either wing, as an offensive midfielder or even in a slightly more defensive role like Shinji Kagawa plays so often under Tuchel.
It’s tough to focus on just a few strengths with Pulisic because he’s very well-rounded for his age. What catches the eye first is probably his technique, as it is already one of the best among the first team players. It doesn’t seem to matter too much to him whether he’s running at full speed or has a few defenders very close to him, he’s usually in full control of the ball and the situation.
Much like Kagawa, Pulisic likes to use the outside of his foot while dribbling and tips the ball with his toes rather than pushing it with his sole. This style of dribbling might not look as clean as Mario Götze’s, for example, but it allows Pulisic to build up speed in no time and he’s always ready to pass or shoot the ball.
While dribbling, the 17-year-old rarely uses fancy tricks and his dribbling usually serves a purpose, another parallel to Kagawa. Pulisic’s physique is also reminiscent of the Kagawa’s when he came to Dortmund in 2010, but he makes up for his lack of physicality by outsmarting his opponents.
He often uses his body very well to shield the ball and is able to win one-on-ones against a lot stronger opponents. On the pitch he plays bigger than his 173 cm (5’7″) indicate.
In one-on-one situations, Pulisic likes to use changes of speed and body feints to throw off opponents and, thanks to his quickness and ball control, he’s able to skip past players very regularly.
His agility and control over his body and the ball make him a great player for narrow pockets. Because of his loose dribbling style, he’s able to change directions very quickly, although tight spaces aren’t necessarily where Pulisic is most dangerous.
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That’s the case when he’s able to pick up a head of steam and run at the defence with the ball at his feet. In this regard, he slightly resembles Mkhitaryan. Both of them almost seem to glide over the pitch and use their speed and technique to get past opponents.
While Mkhitaryan prefers diagonal runs towards the middle, Pulisic also likes to use his speed to get past opponents on the outside and then play a cut-back. We’ve seen this numerous times in the friendlies he’s played in and in U19 league games – and even against Ingolstadt Pulisic displayed that move a couple of times.
Congrats! American Christian Pulisic makes his Bundesliga debut for Borussia Dortmund. Watch him now on FS2! https://t.co/W9DsIfvXis
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) 30. Januar 2016
One of the most important aspects of Mkhitaryan’s game, however, is still missing in Pulisic’s: the ability to create connections between players in the flow of the game. Especially when playing with the first team, the U.S. youth international can get a bit impatient and starts his vertical runs too soon instead of offering the ball-carrier a better passing option.
This way, he interrupts the ball circulation and “forces“ a long pass with little chance of leading to something good. This is, however, a problem that can be fixed with the help of Thomas Tuchel.
In fact, Pulisic is a very good passer when he decides to take part in the ball circulation. He has a good passing technique and great pass-empathy, meaning he knows with which speed and spin to play a pass so it’s easier for his teammates to control the ball.
Sloppy passes are rare with Pulisic and, in the final third, he likes to play through-balls and cut-backs which are likely to result in goals if they find their target. One could say he slightly resembles Mesut Özil in this regard.
One aspect to his game where his young age might show is his finishing. He is able to get himself into very dangerous areas on the pitch, which is a great skill, and even scored two goals for the first team in some friendlies, but his finishing can be naive at times. He doesn’t have the most powerful shot and repeatedly struggles to convert one-on-ones against the goalkeeper.
Defensively, Pulisic’s lacking physicality probably shows the most. Direct duels aren’t his bread and butter and, while he’s a very willing defender, his counter-pressing isn’t amazing yet.
Overall, his defensive abilities are good enough for the wing or a more offensive midfield role, but it’s tough to imagine him playing a deeper role like Ilkay Gündogan anytime soon.
Pulisic might not have the raw potential a Mario Götze had, but he seems to work very hard on himself. Being a quick thinker off and on the pitch also helps his case.
He makes quick decisions and gets it right more often than not on the field. Off the pitch, he’s a quick learner as well and is able to speak some impressive German after only two years in Dortmund. If Pulisic’s development continues and he stays healthy, he is likely to be a Bundesliga player sooner rather than later. USMNT fans have definitely something to be excited about, although they shouldn’t overload the 17-year-old with their expectations just yet.