Before last season, Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s career was perhaps just a reflection of the way football is. If the man on the touchline was truly a coach, every player in a senior squad would be a potential new signing. But so often managers are not coaches. The proliferation of Directors of Football to cope with football’s financialisation does not yet seem to have arrested this dynamic. For now, the joy of football teaching appears to have been sublimated to the demand for football trading. As with many other things, what you can buy is more important to what you can grow.
Perhaps the number of times we see Ruben Loftus-Cheek in a Chelsea shirt next season will be a good test of whether the future holds a new paradigm. For a player who has been at Chelsea since he was 8 years old and has already played in two title winning Chelsea teams, it’s strange that I nominated Loftus-Cheek for discussion. Loftus-Cheek has already been seen, we ought to know who he is and what he can do. However, the reality is that his evolution as a player makes him almost unrecognisable – even to Chelsea, the club that ought to know him best.
Loftus-Cheek’s loan spell last season created a leap in his career that few foresaw as he left Antonio Conte’s management at Stamford Bridge. A loan spell at relegation threatened Crystal Palace hardly seemed the place to make waves but it left Loftus-Cheek not just with a burgeoning reputation but also a place in an England World Cup squad. And It wasn’t an accident either.
Roy Hodgson was clear that the 21 year old had “all the qualities you’re looking for in a central midfield player” and that he had “not worked with many better players in my career…he’ll get better with every year”. That Hodgson, a former England manager, speaks so effusively about a player yet to establish himself in a Chelsea midfield is reason why Loftus-Cheek has to be in the conversation for the new season.
Additionally, in Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s future are the answers for wider questions at Chelsea. For years, the club wooed Loftus-Cheek with long term contracts and talk of long term plans for his development. However, the club’s real commitment to Loftus-Cheek’s career will be proved by the number of times he plays next season. And this time, the issue can no longer be fudged with talk or money.
Now an England international with World Cup experience, Loftus-Cheek can no longer be bought off with promises about his future status at Chelsea. Should Maurizio Sarri revert Chelsea to the club’s previous default 4-3-3 formation then the openings for Loftus Cheek are there to be claimed.
New signing Jorginho’s CV and transfer fee make their own compelling claim for him to assist N’Golo Kante in the centre of a midfield three. One slot would remain open based on those tactical maths. Chelsea and Sarri’s decision as to how to fill it will make a key statement.
Going with Cesc Fabregas would signal a continuing belief in experience in all circumstances, given the Spaniard’s historical quality but also underwhelming performances last season. Going with Ross Barkley or Tiemoue Bakayoko would signal patience, given that both players had their first season at Stamford Bridge written off by perpetual injury and largely unremarkable first impressions on the pitch.
However, going with Loftus-Cheek would signal something quite different: a long overdue recognition of Chelsea’s commitment to its youth. Putting Barkley and Bakayoko to one side due their season’s interruptions, Loftus-Cheek’s midfield statistics fall behind those of Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard trumps Loftus-Cheek in virtually every category of midfield technical effort that you look at (through balls, big chances created, passes made and so on). In essence then, putting Loftus-Cheek in the first team would have to involve a gut or instinctive opinion from Sarri and the club.
On the other hand, whatever the statistics tell Chelsea, they know full well that Loftus-Cheek’s has an enhanced status following England’s balmy summer. Wiser heads at Chelsea must realise that the Loftus-Cheek situation next season will also be of interest to other players who Chelsea are looking to tie down.
Right now, players like Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount are whispers to many outside of the Chelsea and England intelligentsia. However, their talents, demonstrated for the most golden of England youth generations, will not be a secret for long. It’s inconceivable that such players would not be looking intently at Loftus-Cheek’s progress next season. They will want to see if Chelsea really are prepared to change a pattern that last season left the first team without a single youth team transitioned player as a first team regular (arguably for the first time since 1999).
Ruben Loftus-Cheek may not want the responsibility but he is certainly part of a wider debate. Next season we’ll find out whether, even in the unlikeliest of places, there’s still an appreciation for nourishing the players that a club actually has. And whether that appreciation can ever match a club’s desire to spend on the players it thinks that it actually lacks.
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Also published on Medium.