Ruben Loftus-Cheek has talent that sets him apart from peers his age. At the youth level, he bullied players around him with his six-foot-four-inch frame, barely shifting through the gears to gazump opponents. When playing last year in the U-21 tournament in Toulon, France, he was voted the Player of the Tournament and also managed to contribute a handy three goals in four games; helping the young Lions win the cup.
His build suggests that he is a tank of the typical old-fashioned English mold—hard tackling, hoof-balling—but he has married it with modern sensibilities. For someone barely into his 20s, his play is a lot more mature than others his age.
He is subtly nimble on the ball, able to take on players and identify opportunities to create chances. He is in the Yaya Toure/Tiemoue Bakayoko category of player in that he can play a range of midfield roles with ease and possesses the tools to dismantle each challenge. When he made his debut at 18, he was earmarked as Matic’s long term successor. But an argument could be made that compared to the big Serbian, he is a lot more mobile, being able to quickly transition between phases with or without the ball while not sacrificing the physicality that shored up Chelsea’s midfield.
When the season is all finished, hopefully with at least a handful of Premier League wins under his belt, he is expected to return to Chelsea. The only issue is, when he does return, if he actually does feature into Conte’s plans, where will he play and does he have a route into the first team waiting for him?
First team barrier
Since making his big break into the first team, it is fairly obvious that relative to peers his age, Loftus-Cheek has failed to keep up. A lot can be attributed to a lack of game-time and consistent performances for large stretches of the game; stamina has been an issue that has been brought up, due to a few observant viewers noticing his supposedly conservative jogs around the pitch.
Even the man in question has pointed out that his chances of playing at Chelsea factored into his loan move to the Eagles. Somewhat caught in the dubious position of being cornered by “Troopz” of ArsenalTVFan fame, when asked what he wanted to get out of this season, Loftus Cheek said:
“I had to leave Chelsea and get as much game time as possible and improve. That’s what I need at the moment.” He also added, “I’ve trained with some top players at Chelsea but sometimes training is not enough.”
While he can’t claim to have had a great start to the season with the Selhurst-based club—Crystal Palace are rooted to the bottom of the table, with no goals scored and no points—he has been fairly fruitful in being able to seek out those first team positions he craves. He has been unfortunate to be associated with the club’s rotten run this campaign, but he has also been one of their best players in each of their matches.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Crystal Palace 17-18. Always difficult to evaluate players on dysfunctional teams. Definitely PL talent present pic.twitter.com/0Zx4gOEul3
— Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts) September 27, 2017
Loftus-Cheek is fairly adaptable positionally, having been trained in Chelsea’s “6-8-10” policy, where each midfielder can play the three main roles of a midfield at a young age. When Conte played him last season, he often deployed him on the left wing in Cup appearances, counting on his dynamic play to break down defences.
Crystal Palace have followed suit and have primarily played him in an attacking three—under both the De Boer and the Hodgson regimes. In that role, he has taken to his attacking position pretty naturally, often fashioning chances for himself and for the striker, Benteke; against hard teams to beat in the form of Liverpool and Manchester City. It could be argued that if Christian Benteke had his shooting boots on, RLC would have at least an assist from the Liverpool and the Southhampton games alone.
But when it comes down to it, he wouldn’t displace the likes of Hazard, Pedro, or Willian for those positions when he gets back, and given the form of Musonda, the Belgian will be prioritised because that’s his natural position.
In midfield, RLC will stare out at Kante, Drinkwater, Bakayoko and possibly still even Fabregas, who are higher up the pecking order in the team. For Tiemoue—who is closest to Loftus in positional style—Loftus-Cheek can’t even wait until the Frenchman ages out because he is 22 and arguably still awaiting his prime years of play. The signing from Monaco has brushed the cobwebs off this season, after an injury ruled him out during the early parts of the campaign, and was dominant in his recent game against Stoke—the only issue has been that he is prone to giving away fouls at inopportune times.
It seems to me, that Loftus-Cheek, who should at this point be receiving regular first team football like his age-peer Deli Alli, is between a rock and a hard place. If he stays at Chelsea, he is too good to be rotting away in the youth team—Chelsea youth’s twitter account said that he would stagnate because, “He’s nothing left to do at U21 level.” He has also left it too late in waiting for first team football to be awarded to him, when he should have been out on loan last season. He could wait it out like he did last season, as a rotation option, but if you look at Conte, once he’s secured a working first team, he rarely budges from the formula. I am sure that Loftus-Cheek will receive the odd scrap of time here and there, but only to round off a game at best, which recent departure Nathaniel Chalobah has been well acquainted with.
The only realistic option for Loftus Cheek is that he moves away permanently and returns with a buy-back option if he comes good. It will be a hard pill to swallow but for his development’s sake, he has to move on to better his chances of kicking on in his career.