Appearances (starts + substitute):
Premier League: 0 + 6 (30 minutes)
FA Cup: 2 + 1 (164 minutes)
EFL Cup: 2 (149 minutes)
The story so far:
Ruben Loftus-Cheek only turned 21 in January, but it feels like he’s been in and around the first-team for ages. He cut an extremely impressive and dominant figure at youth level, and attracted widespread attention after impressing in Chelsea’s two post-season friendlies against Manchester City in 2013. At that time, Loftus-Cheek was seen as a central midfielder, and the answer to most anxiously posed questions such as “Will Chelsea ever have another youth product as a regular starter?” and “Can he play in the pivot?”.
Jose Mourinho joined the following summer and Loftus-Cheek spent yet another successful season with the Chelsea Under-18 and Under-21 teams, before finally making his Chelsea debut on the infamous ‘Academy Day’ versus Sporting Lisbon in December 2014. He was formally drafted into the Chelsea first-team by Mourinho in February and even made a couple of starts in dead rubber Premier League games at the end of the season. Chelsea had just won the league and as we looked forward to a bright and stable future and Mourinho, we talked up Loftus-Cheek a great deal, claiming he would soon be ready to have equal opportunities as a first-team player.
Of course, nobody could’ve possibly envisioned what would ensue in the 2015-16 season but if anything, Chelsea’s first-team regulars performing terribly should’ve meant that the likes of Loftus-Cheek would’ve been afforded some sort of greater role or perhaps given a reasonable chance to stake their claim over the underperforming and under-fire regulars. In accordance with the general theme of Mourinho and Loftus-Cheek, there were positive indications at first. With Chelsea trailing 0-2 at Stamford Bridge against Crystal Palace in the fourth match of the season, RLC was thrown on for the last 17 minutes. Along with fellow substitute Kenedy, Loftus-Cheek turned in an impressive performance and left us all wanting more. That more never quite materialised.
After just one win in the next four games, Mourinho claimed he was willing to finally give the youth a chance in the Premier League, and started Loftus-Cheek against Aston Villa — curiously enough, as an attacking midfielder and only for 45 minutes, reserving a few stern words even for the youngster after the game. Ruben only saw significant game time next under Guus Hiddink, who handed him three starts (also as an attacking midfielder) and some time off the bench as well. He ended the 2015-16 season with 737 minutes played, which remains his highest in a full senior season. He also signed a new contract that ties him to the club until the summer of 2021.
With the arrival of Antonio Conte, it was thought that the youngster would finally go out on loan and get what he needed the most - regular playing time. Conte saw it differently however, and chose to retain him in the first-team. Like Hiddink and Mourinho before him, Conte also saw Loftus-Cheek primarily as an attacking option. Initially a second striker in the 4-2-4 system, Ruben later also played as an inside-forward in the 3-4-3. Working with Conte has been beneficial for the 21-year-old, who has looked better with every appearance this season, whether against Peterborough and Bristol Rovers in the cup competitions, or an impactful cameo against Stoke City in the Premier League.
Given that Chelsea weren’t in Europe for the season, the squad was kept relatively small in size and although Loftus-Cheek didn’t feature in the match-day squad on as many occasions as Nathaniel Chalobah, he made the 18 in the league 15 times despite minimal injury concerns to the regular options and injury problems of his own (notably his back, and not for the first time in his career) to deal with. He was a regular for the England Under-21 side throughout the season though, and was arguably their best player over the stretch; it’s quite a pity therefore, that he’ll have to miss out on the upcoming Under-21 Euro tournament due to his most recent injury setback.
Loftus-Cheek played every central midfield position at youth level, although three senior managers have now played him further front and deployed him as an attacking option.
Let’s have a look at his showing in the aforementioned post-match friendly against Manchester City in 2013, when he was still an academy player.
Loftus-Cheek is a physical specimen to behold and didn’t look out of place in those terms on the pitch. Stand-out aspects of this game that come to mind were his tendency to dribble past players and carry the ball in midfield, which eventually evolved into his almost trademark mazy runs forward.
Fast-forwarding about two years, here’s Loftus-Cheek starting against Liverpool towards the end of the 2014-15 season, in which he seems more comfortable on the pitch than before and also more at ease physically as he’s continued to grow into his body. A solid, pro-active performance overall but it doesn’t tell us too much about him yet.
Ruben’s first-half display as central-attacking midfielder against Aston Villa in the 2015-16 season introduced us to his potential as an attacking threat at the top level, with his obvious ability to run past midfielders, whilst also out-muscling opposition defenders. His end product was lacking, along with ability to influence the game consistently, but it seems only reasonable to expect such qualities to develop only with more experience and match-time.
This rather indifferent display against MK Dons in the same season, other than his assist to Oscar, also highlights how frustrating Ruben could be, looking even a little lackadaisical at times.
Finally, we come to this season with these clips from games against Peterborough and Brentford showcasing a new and improved version of Loftus-Cheek, who seems more confident, imposing and light on his feet. It’s evident that training under Conte has improved him.
He doesn’t get as much joy against Brentford but is notably more effective than his previous seasons’ displays.
Loftus-Cheek has been the poster-child for academy youth for a few seasons now and hence has been burdened with a lot of expectations. While his development doesn’t look to have gone as greatly as perhaps it could have and as we had all hoped, he is by no means done at Chelsea. The long-term contract he signed in early 2016 was an indication that the club saw him as part of the future and Antonio Conte too, most recently stated that Ruben was seen as a key part of Chelsea going forward. However, after two seasons on the fringes, I reckon Loftus-Cheek has had enough in-house development. He’s trained and played under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink and Antonio Conte, and it’s high-time for him to have a full season of regular minutes. He has all it takes to succeed in the Premier League, but playing time is a must for him to take a firm step towards fulfilling his potential. Hence, my verdict is loan.
As for potential destinations, Newcastle’s name has been most prominent in recent times, although Tammy Abraham looks set to move there on loan instead. Possible alternatives in the Premier League are Bournemouth and Brighton, whereas a season under Leonid Slutsky at Hull wouldn’t serve him badly either, even if that would mean stepping down to second division football. Borussia Monchengladbach is an option abroad that could be explored, but I sense a domestic loan coming for Ruben.
What would you do with Ruben Loftus-Cheek next season?
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