There was a lot of noise coming out of Cobham.
About five or six years ago, Chelsea – lovers of the transfer window – thought they might just be nurturing a very special generation of talents though their very own youth system. Names like Dominic Solanke, Tammy Abraham and Lewis Baker had all been pivotal players for Chelsea’s – and indeed England’s – youth sides. But one young man tiptoed past them all to force his way through to the senior side before all the others.
That man was Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The Lewisham-born midfielder has José Mourinho to thank for his first opportunities. December 2014 saw him make his senior debut, in none other than the Champions League against Sporting CP. His Premier League debut shortly followed – against Manchester City soon after the turn of the new year – and then he was permanently promoted to the senior team days later.
In the years that have since passed, Loftus-Cheek has been to – and assisted at – a World Cup, has won the Premier League, and scored four times on a Europa League journey that ended with victory last season in Baku. After having been one of the guiding lights that got Chelsea to that final, he tragically missed out on the match itself with an Achilles injury. He hasn’t played a single competitive match for club or country since.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s return is going to improve us massively.
Last year the attacking influence he had on the team was enormous, he was the only player close to Eden Hazard’s level in that sense.
The dynamism Ruben Loftus-Cheek will provide will help us replace Eden Hazard. pic.twitter.com/KPLR3Kc5RS
— ? (@ColdCalteck) May 14, 2020
When he does return, he’ll have been largely forgotten about, because that’s how fast sport moves these days. Mason Mount is the new big thing in the number ten role at Chelsea, although even he seems old news now compared with Billy Gilmour. Meanwhile, James Maddison and Jack Grealish have been widely cited as England’s future creative talents for some years to come.
Ruben, don’t despair. Just because that’s what the social media bandwagon has decided, it does not mean that is what will happen. Will Mount will stop Ross Barkley earning any game time at Chelsea? Or will Grealish mean Dele Alli can’t get into the England side? No. It doesn’t always work like that.
Managers’ trust goes a long way, and that will play into Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s favour. That’s not to say he doesn’t deserve game time for club and country. He certainly does. The ten-cap England international brings things that other creative talents playing in the pocket can only dream of. But he’s trustworthy, and his managers know him. Lampard spent years at Cobham as a player, playing with a much younger, rawer Loftus-Cheek.
Gareth Southgate managed him with the England Under-21s. In fact, when England won their first of three successive Toulon Tournaments in the summer of 2016, the winning goal in the final against France was scored by the Chelsea man.
Few players can stride forward with such power and posture as the 24-year-old. Chelsea saw that a lot last season before his injury, and Frank Lampard will be holding on at the hope he can reproduce that whenever he and football finally awaken.
Another key attribute of his is incredible core strength. When Ruben Loftus-Cheek shields the ball from you in the middle of the park, you won’t be getting hold of it any time soon. It’s as simple as that.
Cute players like Mason Mount and Phil Foden are European in their style and cultured in their composure and patience, but they aren’t necessarily characteristics that Frank Lampard nor Gareth Southgate are looking for.
Both managers want their sides to play on the counter, exploiting weaker defences thanks to rapid wingers and excellent dribblers in the middle of the park. Luckily, Loftus-Cheek fits that bill, not the one with slow, considered, cute passes. Chelsea and England want to play like an overpowered FIFA 20 team, not like Spain did under Vicente del Bosque.
When Loftus-Cheek returns to full fitness and football returns to its normal self, Lampard at Chelsea and Southgate at England will be paying close attention to him. Will he be able to hit the heights he managed before his fitness woes? Will he be able to kick on and establish himself in both teams?
With Chelsea into the FA Cup quarter-finals and just about still alive in the Champions League, and with England looking into the distance at Euro 2021, it’s time for Loftus-Cheek to step up, look up, and dribble the ball forward as far as the eye can see.