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Should Christian Pulisic Leave Borussia Dortmund?

With Liverpool and Chelsea sniffing around the still-teenage American prodigy, it’s time to consider what he might look like in something other than yellow and black

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, Bayern Munich finally snatched up another North American teenage prodigy. Except, his name wasn’t Christian Pulisic.

To me, the idea of a Pulisic-to-Bayern move always made sense. The club’s attempt to turn Julian Green into their American superstar was a spectacular failure, as he was last seen playing for SpVgg Greuther Fürth in Germany’s second division. But the club now has an office on Madison Avenue, and the Bundesliga now airs weekly matches in the States. FC Hollywood might still be in the market for a Captain America. Plus, it’s been a while since they stole Borussia Dortmund’s best player. And Pulisic plays an urgent position of need; Bayern’s two starting wingers (when healthy) are still Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, the two oldest players on the team. It can’t hurt that Pulisic lit them up last season, either:

Instead, Bayern went out and broke the MLS transfer record and paid what the league describes as a fee that “could total more than $22 million” to get 17-year-old Canadian winger Alphonso Davies from the Vancouver Whitecaps. His numbers all look pretty good—five goals and eight assists in 21 appearances this season; 5.5 completed dribbles per 90 minutes—and his foot skills look even better:

But the gulf in quality between the Whitecaps and Bayern is so vast it might as well be measured from outer space: Per FiveThirtyEight’s SPI, Bayern currently rate as the best team in the world, while Vancouver are 433rd. Davies is talented; any concrete projections for his future would require a knowledge of witchcraft.

Pulisic, on the other hand, is already in Germany: He has more than 4,000 Bundesliga minutes under his belt for a Champions League team before his 20th birthday. And although he’s not going to Bayern, thinly sourced rumors have him in talks with Chelsea amid stalled contract negotiations with Dortmund. Liverpool have also long been connected with Pulisic because of their American owners and because Pulisic joined Dortmund while current Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp was still leading the way at the Westfalenstadion.

Every transfer rumor is more likely to go up in smoke than actually come to fruition—it’s the Occam’s razor of the soccer market—but this summer has been too quiet, so let’s play along. If Pulisic were to leave for Liverpool or Chelsea, which move would make more sense for him?

How about neither?

At Liverpool, he’d enter a stable situation with a manager who not only knows and seems to be fond of him, but is also locked into a deal with his current club until 2022. Pulisic would also presumably not require a major adjustment period, since both Liverpool and his current club play generally similar styles reliant on the counter-press. It might not be obvious to American fans, given the national team’s still-yet-to-be-defined playing style, but Pulisic is currently a better defender than attacker. To wit: He regained possession of the ball in the attacking third more than any player in the Bundesliga last season. On top of the stability and fit, Liverpool has a young squad, their front office is ambitious, and the club looks likely to only keep improving.

And yet. Pulisic has played the majority of his minutes with Dortmund on the right wing. It just so happens that Liverpool also employ the best right winger on the planet. Pulisic has nine goals and 12 assists in his entire Bundesliga career; Mohamed Salah scored 32 goals and added 10 assists just last season. With Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané, Liverpool’s front three might be the best in the world, and they’re all 26—right in their professional primes. There are only 10,260 league minutes to go around in Liverpool’s attacking trident, and at the absolute maximum, 2,400 of them would’ve been available to Pulisic last season. Of course, if he came to the club, part of the value in the move would be that Liverpool wouldn’t have to be so reliant on those three players, but it’s hard to see him becoming a starter at Anfield for at least a couple seasons.

With Chelsea, though, Pulisic would likely be first choice from the jump. He’d need to unseat Willian, but reports suggest that the Brazilian would need to be sold before a move for the 19-year-old anyway. Were that to happen, Pulisic would get to play under Maurizio Sarri, perhaps the most technically demanding manager on the planet. His teams rely on what’s often a mesmerizing combination of patient-but-quick-passing and sudden vertical bursts through gaps in the defense. Under Sarri at Napoli, the unfancied trio of Dries Mertens, José Callejón, and Lorenzo Insigne all flourished after years of unspectacular production, and you don’t have to squint too hard to see the same thing happening with Pulisic. He’s already way ahead of where any of them were: At 19, Mertens made one appearance in the Dutch second division, Callejón was playing for Real Madrid’s B-team, and Insigne was in Italy’s third tier.

And yet—again. Can we seriously expect Sarri to last long in London? The club has had 11 managers in the past 11 seasons! And the past three to win the Premier League were then fired either during the following season or right after it. Chaos is Chelsea’s constant, and they still don’t have a director of football, either. To sign on at Stamford Bridge right now is to hitch your fortune to the whims of a volatile billionaire Russian oligarch.

We’ve seen what kind of effect managerial upheaval can have on Pulisic last season. In 2016-17, under Thomas Tuchel, who’s one of the five or 10 best managers out there, Pulisic put together one of the best attacking seasons of any teenager this decade. In fact, when he played, he was just one of the best attackers in the Bundesliga, full stop. When Dortmund replaced Tuchel with the kamikaze stylings of Peter Bosz, and then him, midseason, with the vanilla tendencies of Peter Stöger, Pulisic’s rate of production regressed.

Christian Pulisic: The Past Two Bundesliga Seasons

Season Minutes Goals Assists G+A/90 Minutes Expected Goals Expected Assists xG+xA/90
Season Minutes Goals Assists G+A/90 Minutes Expected Goals Expected Assists xG+xA/90
2016-17 1511 3 7 0.59 4 4.72 0.52
2017-18 2314 4 5 0.35 5.48 5.33 0.42

Pulisic led the Bundesliga in completed dribbles this past season, but he also lost the ball while taking on a defender more often than any player in all of Europe. The most telling stat, though, might be that he played 75 percent of the minutes for a Champions League–qualifying team that employed multiple managers across a single season. (And based on the preseason, his new manager, Lucien Favre, seems likely to use Pulisic just as much.) The fact that three—and presumably four—different managers have now trusted him in a starter’s role bodes well for two reasons: (1) It suggests that he’s an elite talent, and (2) it means he’s getting enough playing time to keep improving.

Unlike Chelsea and Liverpool, Dortmund can still offer Pulisic both lots of that vital playing time and games in the Champions League. Among clubs with higher revenues than Dortmund, really only Tottenham could do the same. But unless they sell a star, their chairman, inveterate spendthrift Daniel Levy, would never cough up the reported £65 million or so needed to get Pulisic.

Soccer players have short shelf lives, and they should all go get paid as much as they can as soon as they can. But if Pulisic can renegotiate a new, longer, and more lucrative contract with Dortmund this season, it could also benefit the club in the long run, as it would increase the transfer fee they could ask for whenever his departure inevitably comes. For Pulisic, it’d increase his earnings and keep him playing consistently at a high level. Maybe in a year or two, he’ll be coming off a 10-goal-10-assist season and be ready to challenge the Liverpool triumvirate for starts. Hell, maybe one of the Manchester clubs will decide to get in the mix. Or, who knows? Maybe Bayern will decide that it’s finally time to pick up the phone.