Christian Pulisic, Jarrod Bowen, Dusan Vlahovic and Europe’s most overrated forwards this season

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Last week we brought you a quintet of Europe’s most underrated forwards. But there can be no ying without yang so the time is right to go in two-footed, to really cut some of these great idols down to size. Well … not really. To call any of these players overrated is not to say that they are not valuable for the teams they are on nor that they are not having great individual seasons. This piece is perhaps more a call for moderation: maybe Europe’s super teams shouldn’t be rushing to pay the big bucks for these players or any expectations of a continued scoring streak should be tempered. Just don’t get carried away with these guys.

Look, I suppose what I’m trying to say is I’ve got some harsh news for those of you on the Christian Pulisic hype wagon and I’d prefer you don’t redirect that towards my house in revenge. Let’s get into it.

1. Christian Pulisic, AC Milan

Six goals and five assists in 22 Serie A games, averaging a direct goal contribution every 147 minutes: it’s so easy to see those numbers and feel vindicated if you are one of the innumerable U.S. soccer fans who concluded that the answer to every question faced by Chelsea over the past four years was “play Pulisic more.” A run of games and he is finally delivering, right? Well, not really.

Goals are great and some of those that Pulisic have scored are really, really great. Smashing one in from 26 yards after a give-and-go for your first in a Milan shirt? Top stuff.

Shots taken by Christian Pulisic in Serie A 2023-24, sized by xG value
TruMedia

What is far greater are performances that suggest those goals are going to be repeated. And that is where there is precious little evidence that Pulisic, now 25, is going places. For starters, the direct scoreboard output has dried up swiftly since 2024 began, his only Serie A contribution an assist in a 3-0 win over Empoli on Jan. 7. Five days earlier he had sent a pass to Rafael Leao before the Portuguese burst past his man to score the fourth in a 4-1 win over Cagliari. That’s your lot so far.

Over 601 minutes of league and cup football, Pulisic has a combined 1.56 non-penalty expected goals and expected assists (npxG+xA). A good forward in Europe’s top five leagues might hope to hit 0.6 npxG+xA per 90. Pulisic himself was hovering at around that number when he first moved to Chelsea. So far in 2024, small sample size and all, he is averaging just 0.24. Blow that up to the whole Serie A season and it does not get much better at 0.36.

All of which could be offset if there was something else Pulisic brought to this Milan side. Bar a willingness to commit and ability to beat defenders in one vs. one situations — a facet of the game more infrequently utilized by Italian sides than the rest of Europe — there is nothing where the USMNT’s brightest star particularly excels.

Pulisic’s Serie A performance, relative to other wingers, in a variety of key metrics
TruMedia

He does not particularly move Milan up the pitch with his ball-carrying and passing. He does not serve as a great outlet for them either. He is not a chance creator nor is he the one archetype that Thomas Tuchel seemed to be molding him into at Stamford Bridge, a sort of wide poacher who is primed to snaffle chances at the back stick. The goals might have flown early in the season but the shots never really did, only once in Serie A has he taken more than three in a game. 

Of course, his statistical output is not being aided by being the guy who sits on the right flank for a side that skews leftwards to the outstanding duo of Theo Hernandez and Leao. That off-ball forward still needs to offer something, however, whether that is ball recoveries — another facet of the game he is not setting alight — penalty box touches or runs that create space for others. More often than not, however, Milan are getting games like Pulisic delivered in the 1-0 win over Napoli where you simply cannot deny that he was on the pitch for 81 minutes.

Maybe in a different side we would see a different Pulisic. Last summer he took a step down from a 15th-man role on team who had largely been one of Europe’s best during his time there to be a fringe starter on a fringe Champions League team. It is no bad thing for U.S. soccer that he can get both of those roles. Perhaps if he took another step down he might get to show what the international version of him can do in the club game. Maybe though that would merely expose the truth that the injuries that so held him back during his time at Chelsea have lowered his ceiling. Right now, he certainly does not look like the player who so briefly but brightly shone in the Premier League. Given everything that has happened over the last few years, it is fair to question whether he ever will be.

2. Borja Mayoral, Getafe

Here we have one of the most familiar tales in European football. Wonderkid has the world at his feet at one of the biggest clubs, fails to make the grade there and is cast to the winds, often on a series of loan moves. Often it breaks a player. Sometimes it makes them. Happily for Borja Mayoral, the latter would seem to be the case.

A graduate of Real Madrid’s youth academy once compared to the legendary Raul, Borja Mayoral found it hard to establish himself as a forward at the Santiago Bernabeu at a time when the Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema frontline was in its pomp. Loan spells at Roma and Getafe brought initial promise that was not enough to convince either club to part with cash for his services. Instead the latter picked him up permanently in 2022 and got relatively little from him in the first year of a five-year contract. All that has changed now, however, 15 goals placing him sixth among the highest scorers in Europe’s top four leagues.

Suddenly Mayoral is being linked with moves to Europe’s top clubs again, Arsenal said to have been targeting him for a move in January. The Gunners want one of the best forwards available to them when they make their expected plunge into the market this summer and it is hard to say with conviction that Mayoral is one of them. For starters, four of those La Liga goals this season are penalties and one thing Mikel Arteta’s side don’t struggle with is converting from the spot. A goal every game is a reasonable enough return but Mayoral is performing a fair way beyond his xG.

More even than that, the one thing that most of the very best strikers in the sport have in common is that they get shots, lots of shots. Even the Robert Lewandowskis of the world have not always busted their xG but they invariably get an effort away. Playing for a midtable La Liga side, Mayoral averages 1.89 shots per 90, slightly fewer than Tottenham midfielder Pape Sarr or Inter wing back Federico Di Marco. Maybe that number bumps up a tad at an elite club but elite striking talent finds a way to get its shots whatever the environment.

3. Jarrod Bowen, West Ham

Who is the best pure shooter of the ball in Europe right now? You might think Harry Kane for his ability to always connect well with the ball, the two-footed Heung-min Son or the brute force of Erling Haaland. It probably is Son, but that’s for another article. Anyway, according to Opta’s shooting goal metric, which assesses the xG value of a shot before and after it is hit, the answer is a different star of the London football scene. The 58 shots that Jarrod Bowen has taken have an xG value of 8.33. Their post-shot xG — a metric that effectively gauges how difficult the efforts are to save — is 11.92.

His 3.59 shooting goals added is by some distance the highest margin in Europe’s big four leagues. Marco Reus is the only other man to reach three. And those better shots on goal are translating onto the scoresheet, where Bowen has 11 goals. You can sense a man in form in those goals, a low drive off his weaker foot to beat Wolves just before Christmas, the wonderful curler with which he opened his season account against Bournemouth.

Shots taken by Jarrod Bowen in the 2023-24 Premier League, sized by xG value
TruMedia

Are we seeing the emergence of a new star shooter in the Premier League then? No, not really. For starters, over as small a sample as small as 58 shots, variance needs to be priced in. You can rest assured that, for instance, the deflected strike that flummoxed Emiliano Martinez in defeat to Aston Villa had a far higher post-shot xG value than its 0.02 pre-shot value, the green dot within a dot you can see in the bottom left of his shot chart above.

Expand Bowen’s sample size to the start of the 2020-21 season and you end up with a player who has subtracted 1.37 shooting goals over his 265 shots. That seems truer to who the West Ham forward is, not necessarily a plus ball striker in the same way as a Son. Bowen is still doing impressive work at the tip of a David Moyes’ attack — a lonely job if ever there was one — but this season’s goal return has hallmarks of a hot streak that won’t last.

4. Dusan Vlahovic, Juventus

It has to be said that Dusan Vlahovic, Serie A player of the month for January, looks much improved on the player who so underwhelmed in his first full season at Juventus. He is getting shots up at good volume, averaging 4.44 per 90 in league play this season. Even if you do the one thing that so many forgot to do when they were breathlessly discussing his potential move from Fiorentina in January 2022 — strip the penalties out of the shot data — he looks pretty usable. Twelve goals, 0.68 npxG per 90: that’s not Haaland numbers but it’s pretty useful stuff. 

Here’s the thing though, unless you’re delivering Haaland numbers, it’s becoming harder and harder to justify only offering scoring at the elite level. Vlahovic has created very little for others throughout most of his career and even in a more attack-minded Juventus side this season, he is only averaging 0.06 xA. He doesn’t offer much off-ball and has recovered possession in the attacking third on only 18 occasions since the start of the last Serie A season.

There are reasons why those transfer stories involving Vlahovic and the Premier League have never really eased. Of course, there are money troubles at Juventus and a 24-year-old with 73 Serie A goals to his name is more fungible than many in Bianconeri. But if he were that transformative, this club would be doing all they could to hold on to him.

5. Deniz Undav, Stuttgart

This is less about Brighton loanee Deniz Undav per se than the very weird stuff that is happening with the Bundesliga in general this season. Four of the five leaders in npxG per 90 across Europe’s top four leagues hail from the German top flight. Two of them — Undav and Serhou Guirassy — ply their trade in Stuttgart. It is hard to believe that in just over 1200 minutes, Undav is averaging almost as many shots as Darwin Nunez.

Then you come to watch his goals and the defending is just so bad. A hat trick against RB Leizpig where any competent defense could have snuffed out all three of the chances he converted. Then there’s the goal he scores against Augsburg. Perhaps I’ve spent too long watching the finely crafted array of pick and rolls that is an Arsenal or Brentford corner. But I am baffled.

Undav, left in acres of space, scores for Stuttgart from a corner passed straight to him
Wyscout/Bundesliga

They just pass the ball to him and he kicks it right in the goal? A pass of 20-plus yards that no one reacts to? Are there no pressing triggers at corners?

Last week I gave Victor Boniface the underrated label because he seems to offer so much more than just scoring, which he is doing at elite levels. It is, however, really hard to see the upside on anyone lighting up the Bundesliga — yes, even you, Kane — when it just looks so easy to put the ball in the net.



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