New managers often find themselves in an odd sort of limbo in their first year at a new club. If initial returns aren’t very good, people often excuse those results away because the team hasn’t had enough time to gel or the manager hasn’t had enough time to execute his vision. On the other hand, if results are good, and even shockingly good, that can go against the new manager in some situations as well: he wasn’t the one who assembled the majority of this team. Maybe the players are excited about competing for a new manager. The league hasn’t had a chance to catch up to his tactics yet.
Thomas Tuchel overcame such distinctions to put together a very good 2015/2016 campaign after the abysmal season before saw Jurgen Klopp’s exit from the club, but he’s also undergone a sophomore slump in a year where he has had many more players leave and join the club under his watch. Dortmund sit fifth on the Bundesliga table, and despite the title race being far from over (should BVB beat Bayern this weekend, there would only be a three point difference between the clubs), the start to the season hasn’t matched the torrid pace Tuchel set for himself last year en route to one of the highest point totals ever in Bundesliga history. And perhaps surprisingly, some of that trouble has stemmed from the attacking midfield.
The #10 spot was not supposed to be a problem for Dortmund this season. Shinji Kagawa, while he cooled off considerably in the second half of the season, played the 2015 Hinrunde like it was 2011 all over again. Gonzalo Castro delivered assist after assist when he was called upon. And faced with the loss of some serious creative power with the departures of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ilkay Gundogan, Dortmund got Mario Gotze to return to the club he first broke out at with the promise of his true position being restored to him after a few seasons as a winger or forward at Bayern. The position looked solid.
As anyone will tell you, that hasn’t exactly worked out. Kagawa has been wildly inconsistent. Gotze and Castro have played a bit better, but neither have been able to demonstrate an ability to either claim the starting position for good or even be able to consistently threaten opposing defenses game in, game out. While the wings have looked thin for the entire season, the middle has remained relatively healthy, with a first choice option almost always available for BVB. The players responsible for directing the attack just haven’t been consistently good.
However, getting healthier on the wing might just be the cure to Dortmund’s attacking midfield, given Christian Pulisic’s performance with the United States against Mexico on Friday night. Given the keys to the U.S. attack for the first time at the senior level, Pulisic terrorized the Mexican defense, running past experienced defenders and midfielders (including Rafa Marquez, Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, and several others) and drawing foul after foul. While he didn’t get on the scoresheet, he proved that even on a team where he’s the focal point as opposed to one attacking threat amongst many, he’s a very good player that will most likely become world class. And he did so in the middle of the field.
Christian Pulisic is electrifying. Really good, tenacious display against Mexico; big things to come of this young man. pic.twitter.com/AcXmXQWsFJ— J28 (@Juego28) November 13, 2016
Even after a U.S. switch in formation took Pulisic to a more familiar wing position, he still found himself drifting inside and causing havoc more and more as the game wore on from central positions. He also showed himself to be unafraid of battling and being physical yet again, notably dispossessing Chicharito despite his still-slender teenage frame. Yes, he had a nervy moment in the box when his touch escaped him, but once again, Pulisic looked like a man. All of this begs the question: with Andre Schurrle and Marco Reus both quickly on their way to full health, should Tuchel try playing Pulisic in the middle of the field?
Starting Pulisic off at the wing was a completely understandable move when Tuchel first brought the teenager up to the first team. Pulisic was (and still is) tiny. He wasn’t quite as used to the pace of first-team Bundesliga football. The wing offered him a bit more time and more chances at 1v1 battles that shielded him a bit from getting crowded and muscled off the ball in the middle. Dortmund also needed depth on the wings. When he not only made his debut, but also became a vital contributor to the team from out wide, it seemed the positional move might have been just what Pulisic needed to facilitate his rapid rise all the time.
But while he had played on the wing a bit for U.S. youth teams before his move to Dortmund, it was his play in the attacking midfield that first caught Dortmund’s eye, as well as many other top clubs around Europe. Pulisic was equal parts third forward and chance generator, using his speed and quickness to open up defenses on the break, and his intelligence to line up late runs into the box where teammates could pick him out for easy finishes. His ability to play with two-feet and quick decision-making made him most dangerous in the middle, where opposing defenders couldn’t be sure which way he would go. In his 90 minute stretch of play at the senior level in which he inhabited the middle of the field, Pulisic showed that these skills translated to the senior level, and he showed very few signs of rust after playing on the wing for about a year for Dortmund.
Tuchel needs the health of Marco Reus and Andre Schurrle to help the attacking midfield no matter which way you look at the matter. It’s completely possible that a return to health and form by the pair will draw more attention to the wings and allow someone like Gonzalo Castro or Mario Gotze to thrive in the middle of the field. Pulisic may simply return to a supporting role where he can provide a lift on the wings off of the bench. But if a fully-healthy first team doesn’t coincide with a rise in level from the attacking midfield, it might just be about time for Tuchel to try something new in attacking midfield. Yes, normally handing the keys of the attack to a teenager on a team expected to compete for silverware every year would normally be seen as a risky move. But at the rate Christian Pulisic has climbed his learning curve, it might be riskier to not put him on the field.