They were four of the most exhilarating touches American soccer fans have ever seen. The seamlessly elastic reception with his left foot. The lightning-quick-but-controlled stab with his right. The dance around Jaime Penedo. The blind finish. Christian Pulisic burst right through the center of Panama’s defense, and effectively sent the U.S. to the World Cup.
Right through the center.
It’s the key word, because it was one of the two at the heart of the most compelling U.S. tactical debate heading into Friday’s qualifier. Christian Pulisic: Wide or central?
Manager Bruce Arena chose the latter, and Pulisic was lethal. Which provided another subject for debate: Was the 19-year-old’s performance a definitive answer to The Pulisic Question?
The answer to that depends on what exactly the original question was.
Friday was pretty emphatic evidence that Pulisic is most dangerous when deployed centrally and given freedom to roam. His effectiveness was directly tied to his proximity to Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood, and to his positional flexibility from the central starting point.
But that evidence doesn’t necessarily equate to proof that Pulisic’s best position is and will always be at the top of a midfield diamond. Because a significant portion of the explanations for the U.S.’s success on Friday are situational.
Pulisic’s role against Panama was unique. He was not an archetypal attacking midfielder. He rarely checked to the ball, and rarely received it from Bradley or the center backs:
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) October 7, 2017
His movement instead reflected that of what is often known as a second striker – an attacker who plays just underneath a No. 9 and runs off him. Except that Pulisic wasn’t a second striker, because, well, he was a third striker. The graphic above reflects that. So do a few quick looks at the U.S.’s shape in possession:
Arena’s gameplan was wildly aggressive and attack-minded. It essentially featured three strikers – maybe two-and-a-half, with Pulisic half striker, half central winger. And it gave Pulisic, one of the two nominal central midfielders in the diamond, relaxed defensive responsibility. That allowed and encouraged him to seek out space wherever he could find it, especially in transition.
The results were overwhelmingly positive. Pulisic, Altidore and Wood combined with and complemented one another extremely well. They are almost surely the U.S.’s best attacking trio.
But the results were overwhelmingly positive, as opposed to merely positive or mixed, because Panama didn’t have the quality to exploit corollary weaknesses. You could see glimpses of the main weakness when the U.S. tried to play direct to Altidore or Wood, Pulisic gambled on the second ball, but the striker did not win the first:
Against teams with more quality, a 4-1-2-1-2 – or perhaps more accurately a 4-1-2-3 – with two attack-first wide players will be exposed. It will be ripped apart. Leaving Bradley to patrol the entire middle of the field defensively will be suicidal.
The onus, therefore, will be on Arena to decide what the adjustment is against superior opponents. If the adjustment is to replace Paul Arriola and/or Darlington Nagbe with a proper No. 8 or two, can the Yanks still afford to commit three lineup spots to forwards? And can those three forwards be as devastating with slightly diminished support?
If the adjustment is to burden Pulisic with more defensive deties, would the American wunderkind still be as effective going forward? Or would defensive duties compromise the whole point of playing him centrally?
And if the adjustment is to bench Wood for an extra central midfielder, bringing the U.S. back into a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1, would Pulisic still shine with only Altidore to play off of?
[More FC Yahoo: Why Jozy Altidore is a must-start for the U.S.]
The Panama match didn’t so much answer The Pulisic Question as reword it into all of the above.
Pulisic is a better attacking player for the U.S. if his starting point is behind two strikers. That debate can be put to bed for now. But are there situations in which the deficiencies of the shape that enables him to play there will catch up with the benefits? Will the “third striker” role always be a viable one?
These are the more detailed questions that The Pulisic Question has morphed into. And they’re the ones Arena will spend eight months, several friendlies, and a pre-World Cup camp trying to answer.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.