Pulisic, Fred, Hazard: Players who are better for their country than their club

Football

Sometimes, for whatever reason, a player just looks more comfortable playing for their national team than their club.

Yes, they may only get a handful of games a year, compared to the never-ending cycle of club football, but the national team can offer a change in style, formation and teammates that can have a positive impact on some.

With the 2022 World Cup on the horizon, there may be concerns that a lack of playing time or comfort in a club side could impact a player’s chances of impressing in Qatar. But fear not, for these six players, the likelihood is that they will perform better when donning the national team jersey.

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Having looked so bright in his early days at Chelsea — he scored nine goals during his debut season in the Premier League — the development of the USMNT captain has somewhat stagnated as far his club career is concerned. After being largely ignored by Thomas Tuchel last season — he never got a prolonged spell in his favoured role on the left side of midfield — the arrival of new manager Graham Potter could prove to be either a fresh start or the beginning of the end for his Chelsea career.

For his country, however, Pulisic has continuously performed well (he has 21 goals and 12 assists from 51 games, though some always expect more), with a hat trick against Panama in March being his recent finest hour. His club form so far this season does raises some concerns — he’s still to feature beyond an hour in any competition — but he should still retain his place as the U.S. team’s leader for the World Cup.

Despite never having made himself indispensable at Manchester United, Fred is still an integral part of Tite’s Brazil midfield. Now in his fifth Premier League season, with over 100 games to his name, the left-footed defensive midfielder has rarely shown consistent runs of form beyond the occasional spark of his indisputable talent. Often looking uncomfortable or one-dimensional in possession and hesitant in his pressing game at club level, the 29-year-old appears to play with more confidence for Brazil.

Usually deployed in a sitting role alongside new club teammate Casemiro, Fred tends to stick to a simpler brief on international duty — generally creating a stable, balancing presence with the licence to sporadically roam forward. While never short of effort, he sometimes seems to run out of ideas when receiving the ball for United (though he did show signs of improving his attacking contribution during the second part of the last campaign), whereas he prospers from a more clear-cut role for his country.

Even through his periods without scoring for Chelsea, Werner kept turning up for Germany. Though never lacking in movement, application and energy, Werner’s consistency in front of goal came under scrutiny during his ill-fated spell in London, finding the net only 10 times from 56 league outings. For Germany, however, his goal-scoring record stacks up against some of the top players internationally, with 24 from 53 appearances.

After moving back to the Bundesliga to rejoin RB Leipzig for €30 million in the summer, Werner has rather mysteriously struggled to convert chances at club level; his current tally stands at just one goal from six league appearances (though he did net a hat trick in a DFB-Pokal game.) Being predominantly a movement-based forward who thrives on space, there’s no surprise that his Chelsea coaches were tempted to play him in a wide role (hence further away from goal), but in the Germany team he generally slots in at centre-forward where he is their most consistent goal threat.

Though his minute count for Real Madrid — currently standing at 98 from three games — seems to be dwindling by the month, the former Chelsea forward is still on course to play an important role for Belgium at the World Cup. In fact, Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez appears happy with fielding Hazard as one of two No. 10s — along with Manchester City‘s Kevin De Bruyne — and, despite his injury issues, even played him continuously when games have been coming thick and fast (he featured in all Belgium’s four Nations League fixtures in June.)

In spite of being used sparingly at club level, Hazard (who has 33 goals from 120 international appearances to his name) recently proved decisive for Real Madrid when his second-half inclusion against Celtic resulted in a goal and an assist for the European champions. His creativity, experience and quality on the ball may still turn out to be a determining factor for Belgium in Qatar.

Not only has Depay kept up his excellent form for Netherlands amid a period of personal uncertainty at Barcelona, he’s arguably been his nation’s top performer during the entire World Cup qualifying campaign. With nine goals from as many games, Depay’s contribution helped to secure a World Cup ticket for Netherlands, and he was inspirational in the Nations League in June too.

Depay may have recently regained some confidence from Barca boss Xavi following the end of a transfer window where he opted to stay at Camp Nou despite multiple offers elsewhere, but given the club’s public willingness to let him go in the summer, it appears that the majority of his playing time is going to come from his country. As the sole player in the Dutch squad whose goal tally has reached double figures (a respectable 42 from 80 games), his experience and skill up front will be key to their hopes.

Previously one of the most productive midfielders in Serie A with Udinese (34 goals and 36 assists in 184 games), De Paul has grabbed fewer headlines after his €35m move to Atletico Madrid in 2021. While still showcasing a fine mix of craft and creativity, he’s yet to find a regular slot this season with one goal and assist from eight games.

However, De Paul’s starting spot for Argentina does not seem to be in question (despite a court battle with his ex-wife complicating matters, as individuals entangled in legal controversies may be refused entry to Qatar.) From a more advanced central midfield role in the Argentina set-up, he has the freedom to make his trademark runs into space and venture into goal-scoring positions.

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