If you’re reading this, you already know Dortmund will be playing in the Champions League quarterfinals, in no small part thanks to American teen Christian Pulisic and his goal and assist against Benfica. You also already know that Pulisic is very, very good at football. He plays like a much older player, which you’ve already heard as well. And to that I say: get used to it. His goal against Benfica was the goal of a seasoned pro, combining both raw talent and athleticism with positional awareness and quick decision-making.
The play moves so quickly from a blocked cross to Pulisic’s finish that it’s easy to overlook the movement and vision that got Pulisic from the left wing all the way to the byline on the right-hand side of the goal, chipping the keeper. Let’s take a look.
Before the direct run-up to the goal, Pulisic makes the most difficult play of this whole sequence. His cross to a streaking Aubameyang is a thing of beauty.
Before the goal, Pulisic hit this pass. It was a good one. pic.twitter.com/cYFlrBWzb3— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) March 8, 2017
If you ever wonder why people are so excited about Pulisic or why he gets more playing time than Dortmund transfer fee record holder Andre Schurrle, this is a big part of it. He hits that inch-perfect cross with his left foot, nominally his weaker one. He doesn’t show any marked dip in quality from either wing. If he tries to shift the ball back to his right foot in this play, the defense has already caught up to Aubameyang. This should have been the end of the play. But Aubameyang gets his first touch caught in the spokes a bit, and the ball finds its way back out to Ousmane Dembele on the left wing.
Sensing Dembele looking for a cross and realizing Aubameyang is the only Dortmund player in the box with three Benfica defenders around him, Pulisic drifts into the middle to try to even the numbers (Erik Durm also drifts in behind both of them). Both he an Aubameyang break towards goal when Dembele swings his leg, but the cross is immediately blocked, leaving the Dortmund attackers offside. Dembele challenges for the ball and it pops back to Julian Weigl, thirty-odd yards from goal.
When Weigl passes laterally to Lukasz Piszczek, shifting the attack from the left side to the right, several things happen at once. Erik Durm moves back toward the right-side touchline. 9 times out of 10, Piszczek makes the simple pass to him. With Dortmund holding possession in the attacking third, getting the ball out on the wing is a reasonable concession for both teams to make. Isolated from the main bulk of Benfica’s defense, Dortmund can try to work a quick combination and get the ball into the box for a scoring opportunity. Most crosses don’t lead to very high-quality scoring chances, though, and Benfica doesn’t need to commit many players to defend the wing and sacrifice their defensive shape in the middle, so while the situation isn’t ideal for them, it certainly isn’t the end of the world, either. The Benfica left back shifts over to cover Durm.
Almost as soon as this shift happens, Pulisic spots his opportunity and begins his run. He starts still behind the defense in the middle, where four defenders group closely to him and Aubameyang. But the shifting left back has opened up space on Dortmund’s right side of the field, and Pulisic sees it before anyone else. He dashes back onside and to the right, body angled towards goal as he hooks his run around the left centerback and back into the box, towards goal.
Piszczek sees him and delivers a well-weighted pass for him to run on to. The center back picking up Pulisic guesses wrong, shifting his weight forward to challenge Pulisic as if the attacker is going to receive the pass squarely and look to turn. Instead, he uses his acceleration to turn the corner and lets the ball roll past him, leaving the defense in the dust.
Once he’s toasted the back line, Pulisic has just the keeper in front of him. Also of note are Aubameyang and Dembele, who were both offside when Piszczek passed the ball to the onside Pulisic, are brought back onside by Pulisic’s run and are also behind the Benfica back line. Benfica goalkeeper Ederson is quick off his line to close Pulisic down and he has a decent angle to be able to pull off the save, but his job is complicated by Dembele and Aubameyang being behind the defense in the middle. Instead of just having to mind the far post in case Pulisic tries to beat him there, Pulisic also could just square the ball on the ground for an easy tap in. To his credit, Ederson makes a pretty decent decision, going to ground by dragging his leg and leaving a hand up to his left to cover the near post, while most of his torso and right hand stretch farther right to prevent a possible cross. You can see it in this blurry action shot.
But again, Pulisic makes the correct snap decision. He goes for goal himself instead of crossing, taking the initiative with the keeper out of goal rather than taking the chance that the keeper or a backtracking defender might be able to cut a cross out, and also chooses to chip the ball with the finish, counting on Ederson going to ground. It works beautifully, the ball just clearing Ederson’s left arm and bouncing into the back of the goal.
It only takes about 3.5 seconds once Piszczek receives the ball for it to end up in the back of the net, but it was a perfect pass from the right center back compounded with the vision of the American midfielder to see the play before it happened, recognizing space opening up and running into it, that makes this play work. Many players do not have the combined vision, acceleration, and skill to make this goal happen. Pulisic does, and this run and finish opened the game up for Dortmund, scoring two more goals shortly after to put the Round of 16 tie to bed. With Marco Reus injured, Christian Pulisic will continue to see more time on the field for Dortmund in high-pressure situations. Lucky for them he’s far ahead of the curve.