Whereas other nations like France, Italy or Spain can boast a number of recognisable names that have played for the Blues, the USA has always been a white elephant in this regard. With the popularity of ‘soccer’ stunted behind the more mainstream choice of ‘Handegg’ – sorry, American Football, not to mention the popularity of sports like basketball, baseball and hockey, it’s perhaps not a surprise.
However, Chelsea FC became a much more mainstream name to MLS fans when they acquired Matt Miazga in 2015, and the brand’s presence across the US skyrocketed with the acquisition of ‘Captain America’ Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund in January 2019.
With this in mind, I sat down with Chris Smith (@CJSmith91), Squawka Football Writer and North American & MLS Editor for World Football Index to discuss the importance of big data in sport, the impact of Chelsea’s North American superstar so far and whether Chelsea’s young stars should fear the arrival of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech.
Rob: Hi Chris, thanks for talking to me. There’s only really one place I think I can start: Captain America, Christian Pulisic. Signed with a lot of expectation last year to be a Hazard replacement – how would you assess him overall?
Chris: When looking at Christian Pulisic, it’s a tough one for me as I don’t necessarily watch him every single week and I don’t know what kind of player he is in training for example. But I’ll isolate my thoughts down to his time at Chelsea. He needs to be more consistent and a bigger threat on a regular basis. You look at his performance against Burnley in November, scored a fantastic hat-trick and you are thinking ‘wow, look at that end product!’ and then the next week, he misses three sitters. To be honest, he has been the same so far for the national team.
Rob: Obviously, I don’t think the injuries have helped, but overall, I think that’s a fair reflection of his Chelsea career so far. What would you say are his real strengths and weaknesses as a player?
Chris: It might surprise Chelsea fans a little bit, but I’d say his biggest asset is his creativity. He is a very quick player, physically and mentally and he has real ability to create and take chances in and around the box. Pulisic goes against the traditional image of American players: grit and determination and little technical ability. You look at players like Weston McKennie and it instantly disproves it.
Rob: I remember hearing him described as an elegant bulldozer recently but it is clear he is a lot more than that.
Chris: Yes. Both McKennie and Tyler Adams at RB Leipzig have already shown tactical intelligence and versatility. Adams I think is best suited as a No. 6 but he can play fullback and the national team have used him as an inverted wingback to stop wingers and create dominance in the midfield.
Rob: And Pulisic shows these same attributes, of course.
Chris: Yes, but the debate around Pulisic is ‘is he better out wide, or when played as the No. 10?’ I think it’s definitely out wide, but in the middle he can still drift out wide and take players on. That creativity is one thing that a lot of American players still don’t have.
Rob: It’s interesting to hear about the creative side, as I think that is something more Chelsea fans will be keen to see in his game. When Pulisic was signed, there was a minority that believed he was a marketing tool, rather than a footballing tool.
Chris: Being honest, I think there is a little bit of both. Christian Pulisic is obviously huge on the marketing side for the US national team, and for Chelsea. At Squakwa, we’ve very much adopted the ‘Captain America’ motif. He’s a figurehead and poster-boy because even though other players have come through, very few if any have reached his level.
Rob: And that partly feeds into the marketing side?
Chris: Yes, exactly. He is a pioneer, so I understand why he is a marketing tool; he is an inspiration for other young American footballers. I think the marketing might take a bit of backseat though. The American national team are more focused on him becoming the finished product and world class star. They don’t want him drifting and getting to age 28 or 29 and being viewed as a flop. They want him to be the big European football success story for a US international.
Rob: I’m sure Chelsea fans and the club want him to reach that level too! In terms of a broader question about player development, what one change would you make to ensure that young players get a chance in the Premier League?
Chris: I think in the Premier League, you have to look at the homegrown rule: does it still serve any purpose? Does it help youth development? I think this is a debate that I honestly couldn’t offer a lot insight into. But I think making rules stricter of the matchday squad – not the 23-man-squad, but the actual matchday squad could help give them chances. It needs to be a balance though, it can’t be at the cost of bringing in other football cultures, or players from other countries. The Premier League has thrived since the 90s due to the foreign influx and MLS is experiencing similar growth now due to the influx of South American players.
Rob: On the topic of young players not reaching their potential, I can think of two young Americans at Chelsea: Kyle Scott and Matt Miazga. As I know Miazga played in MLS, are you able to shed some light on what went wrong?
Chris: At the risk of offending readers, I think Miazga went to the wrong club. He was a player with lots of potential and obvious talent and he has a lot of good performances with the national team, which is why he keeps getting selected. However, the development has been stunted by a blend of a lack of playing at the top level and being constantly farmed out on loan.
Rob: As a short aside, can I get you to elaborate your thoughts on the loan policy at Chelsea, from a neutral view?
Chris: There’s been a lot said about Chelsea and the loan system. But being honest, I could only imagine that if I was a young player, I’d rather train with the first team than go on loan. Some players get crippled by the loan system as they can never settle.
Rob: And this is what has slowed down Matt Miazga’s career, in your view?
Chris: Yes, although I don’t think the window to succeed as a player is totally closed for the defender. The talent is there. Of course, that is where the intangible aspects come in: is he mentally resilient to get himself back to the Premier League, or is he happy to settle at Reading in the Championship? There’s no denying his reputation has taken a hit, so I think you have to say only time will tell what happens next. Miazga still has a chance to be a huge player for a club and his national team, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
Rob: Again, a slightly broader, but related point. You’ve talked about player development and training with the first team, and obviously data now drives that massively at the top level. Why is big data analysis so important for developing players on-and-off the pitch?
Chris: With data analysis, I think there are multiple perspectives to take. From a fan perspective, I think it puts the layman in touch with the game in a way we’ve never seen before. I write for Squawka who do stats, visualisations and analysis like this and this gives ordinary fans an insight into the professional game that they’ve not previously had. It’s not everyone’s choice, but some people like it.
Rob: Presumably it’s had a similar impact from a coaching perspective?
Chris: For individual players, it has given them a genuine 360 degree view of their game. I’m going to add that you should still remember the eye-test is important, but analysis is becoming the go-to-way for some to watch the game. Stats for a full-back like one-on-one record, output in the final 3rd can be used to help set targets for players for example. This in turn means clubs can set structured goals to improve on player weaknesses and set achievable goals that players can reach and exceed.
Rob: I agree with you, and I think at times people make too much of data in the wrong way, but that’s a topic for another time! A more relevant question: Alphonso Davies or Christian Pulisic: who is becoming the bigger star in North America?
Chris: They are two separate entities and shouldn’t be treated in competition. As I said earlier, although Pulisic has reached a level that not many American players have achieved, there are exceptions to the rule, people like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan. There has always been a trickle of American players coming through.
For Canada, it’s a different story. Canadians have been largely overlooked in football and again I think the misconceptions about talent levels rings true. Davies being a success at Bayern Munich is great for MLS and for Canada. It’s great for the US overall if Canada does produce world class players and start doing well, and it’s great for MLS because it opens up a pathway for other starlets to follow to get to Europe.
Rob: Again, I can only agree as the only Canadian player I could have named (before Davies and Jonathan David) would be Junior Hoilett. As a final question, can I ask what you think about the longer term future of Chelsea’s young academy stars?
Chris: I’m a neutral, but being honest, if I was Abraham or Mount, I’d be worried again. You’ve already signed Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech, two big players already coming in and they could easily be mainstays in the starting line-up for years. I know Frank Lampard and Jody Morris know about the Academy and know about these names, but there is a pressure from the fans to succeed and from those above at the board level too.
Rob: Can you elaborate a little on that last point?
Chris: If I compare it to MLS clubs and managers, they don’t have relegation and promotion and there isn’t as much jeopardy so they can focus on playing younger players. At Chelsea, there is a pressure to win trophies and Lampard wants to enhance his own managerial career.
If we look at an example of one player who hasn’t made it at Chelsea, Lewis Baker, who was constantly sent out on loan even after really good performances in his early career. If you put yourself into his shoes: ‘Do I want to learn from N’Golo Kante under Manager (x) at Chelsea or do I want to play in the Championship under Tony Pulis?’ With no disrespect to the latter, there is only one right answer in my view.
Rob: I suppose time will only tell regarding the young players’ fates! Thanks again Chris.
You can follow Chris on Twitter (@cjsmith91) for the latest news about MLS and North American football. Also, check out his recent interview with former Chelsea goalkeeper Craig Forrest where they discuss Forrest’s career in England, and how the MLS can become relevant on a global scale.