Is Christian Pulisic overrated? His jaw-dropping golazo should finally end the debate

Trying to decide upon Christian Pulisic’s true level in recent seasons has been like watching a bear solve a Rubik’s cube; maddening, futile and almost impossible.

Upon breaking through at Borussia Dortmund, blessed with lightning-quick feet and the ability to dust games with outrageous skill like icing sugar on top of a cake, Pulisic has been heralded as America’s first (male) footballing superstar.

His move to Chelsea in 2019, which saw the winger rip Premier League defences apart like a share-and-tear pizza bread, seemed like confirmation of the inevitable. Until Pulisic’s career began to stall.

Chelsea’s maddening transfer policy saw the Pennsylvania native increasingly sidelined at Stamford Bridge. Injuries dulled his edge and Pulisic struggled for any sort of consistency.

The sight of his slumped shoulders and despondent face was all too common during his final year at Chelsea. A summer move to AC Milan was good for all parties.

A return of seven goals and six assists represents a solid start to life in Italy, but a goal and assist drought at the start of 2024 saw many question Pulisic once more.

Former West Ham midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker suggested Pulisic needs to embrace more responsibility and become a pivotal figure for AC Milan, akin to Jude Bellingham’s role at Madrid.

Reo-Coker said on CBS Sports Golazo: “It’s good to see him enjoying his football but I want Pulisic to have that edge about him, he needs to take that next level and embrace the pressure, and the limelight. I still don’t think he is doing it.

“I don’t think he’s gone there to say, ‘This Milan team is me, I am one of the key players for Milan’. I think he is having a great season but I wouldn’t say he is the man for AC Milan.

“That is what he needs to do because that is what he has to compete against for the top of the young players we talk about in world football.”

While others believe comparing him to Bellingham is unfair – fellow pundit Nick Cantor emphasised that Bellingham is in a different league as one of the best players globally – there is a kernel of truth in Reo-Coker’s assessment.

A recent CBS article titled ‘Most Overrated forwards in Europe‘ named Pulisic among their number and wrote: “Bar a willingness to commit and ability to beat defenders in one vs. one situation – a facet of the game more infrequently utilized by Italian sides than the rest of Europe — there is nothing where the USMNT’s brightest star particularly excels.

“He does not particularly move Milan up the pitch with his ball-carrying and passing. He does not serve as a great outlet for them either.

“He is not a chance creator nor is he the one archetype that Thomas Tuchel seemed to be moulding him into at Stamford Bridge, a sort of wide poacher who is primed to snaffle chances at the back stick.”

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Strong stuff. But with the USA hosting the next World Cup, Pulisic’s status as the USMNT’s talisman will always result in greater scrutiny.

Getting by will never be enough considering the Americans have arguably their most talented generation of male footballers and desperately want a successful team to capitalise on the sport’s Stateside growth.

Seeing their golden boy benched for Milan’s trip to Monza bought the usual slew of engagement articles and existential questions – poor run of form notwithstanding, most thought Pulisic had escaped the rotation carousel upon leaving Chelsea.

But the 25-year-old was summoned with Milan losing 2-0 and flipped proceedings on its head by firstly teeing up an effort for Olivier Giroud before unleashing a boomerang shot into the top corner to level the game.

Forget for one second that Milan went on to concede two late goals to consign themselves to a damaging defeat.

Pulisic’s composure, speed of thought and flight that resembled a space shuttle and accuracy to ensure his shot would have nestled beyond an orangutan would’ve done wonders for his confidence. They may have lost the battle, but Milan might have won the war.

Coach Stefano Pioli has faced criticism for making six changes to the side that eased past Rennes in the Europa League last Thursday, but he attempted to justify those selection calls by telling DAZN: “It is a painful defeat for the way it developed and the situation we were in.

“The only one who was meant to start today was Rafael Leao, as he had a slight calf twinge in training this morning and did not want to risk it, but the others were in good shape.

“Pulisic did not train yesterday, as he was tired, and Rafa felt he wasn’t ready. Christian has never played so much in recent years, so he needed some rest.”

Pioli added on the reasons for Milan suffering a disappointing defeat: “We moved the ball around too slowly, but Monza also put everyone behind the ball and waited for us.

“The game changed, unfortunately for us, with all those incidents going from the interruption to the goals and the card.

“These are all incidents where a team like ours ought to be sharper, more concentrated and more on their toes.”

With his goal drought consigned to history, Pulisic has provided himself with the perfect springboard to kick on following his mid-winter slump.

Brilliant news for Milan, but also the USMNT side that’s due to host the Copa America in June and two years away from welcoming the cream of world football to their backyard.

It’s unlikely that Pulisic will be considered as one of world’s best footballers by 2026, but he’ll still be the poster boy of the next World Cup. His Monza cameo hinted at the possibility of a career renaissance between now and then.

By Michael Lee

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