Ruben Loftus-Cheek played well for England on Friday night. Not spectacularly or in a manner which absolutely demands his inclusion in the starting eleven from this point forward, but well enough for Chelsea to expect some accusatory glances over the next few days.
How has a player of his talent been given so few opportunities at Stamford Bridge?
It’s a question we all know the answer to and one which requires no little further discussion. Chelsea are not built to run as a long-term project and, because of Roman Abramovich’s level of patience, the need to win immediately is never lost on their head-coaches.
But there’s an additional layer to this which doesn’t get enough of an airing. While it’s incontestable that Premier League exposure nourishes developing talent, the situation in which that occurs is also important. To mature properly, a player has to be embedded within a system which suits his abilities and, perhaps more importantly, in a specific role which multiplies his effect.
Loftus-Cheek is an interesting example, of course, because his initial appearances for Chelsea initially came at the base of Jose Mourinho’s midfield. Superficially, that was good news. Seeing an academy graduate in the first-team was enough of a novelty for the circumstances to be almost incidental. With hindsight, however, it now looks like to have served little purpose. The position he was asked to play exposed all of his weaknesses and few of his strengths. He was never encouraged to carry the ball beyond defenders or allowed to express himself when in possession and that reflects in his statistics from the time; even in Palace’s feeble team, his attacking measurables are all currently far more healthy.
Part of that relates to Mourinho, with his defensive focus and bizarre intolerance for young players’ imperfections, but it was also circumstance.
Up until recently, Loftus-Cheek was a promising player without a true definition. But while it’s true that he existed for a long time without a label, his greatest strengths – from youth football onwards – have always been offensive. He’s creative, he’s a goal-threat, and he belongs within thirty yards of an opponent’s goal. It stands to reason, then, that for him to realise his potential he needs to inhabit areas in which that part of his game is most relevant – and the chances of that happening at Chelsea have been (and remain) extremely remote.
The problem is as much his profile as it is his youth. Since 2014, Chelsea have favoured a single forward system supported by a phalanx of mobile attacking midfielders. The orthodox number 10 position, which would seem to suit Loftus-Cheek best, hasn’t really existed. Clearly, to involve him ahead of Eden Hazard, Willian, Pedro or any of the other players who have been used would have created a counter productive tactical ellipsis. Equally, the notion of redesigning an entire attacking unit to suit the whims of an untested, unproven player would have been contextually ridiculous; the kind of decision which generally ends with a coach being dismissed.
It’s a question of responsibility. Loftus-Cheek has been bred as a centrepiece asset and as the sort of player through whom teams play. Involving him in any meaningful way – in the proper way – would have always involved the dropping of a superior player and a likely decline in performance.
Which, of course, leaves a single alternative: playing him for the sake of it. Hiding him in a formation and never exposing him to the kind of responsibilities which he will need to shoulder if his career is to be a success. In those first formative appearances in early 2015, the basis for almost all of the praise he received was an impressive pass-completion rate. A benign statistic at the best of times, but particularly redundant in that case; what, for instance, would have been the point in measuring Frank Lampard’s attempts at a Claude Makelele impression? A silly equivalency, perhaps, but one which still illustrates key flaws.
Chelsea’s loan system receives a lot of criticism, but it should be remembered that the club is (a) not responsible for the general health of English football and that (b) moving players to inferior sides allows them to potentially make a case for their long-term involvement. These loans provide a dry run: the chance to actually play, of course, but also to occupy a role which isn’t available at Stamford Bridge.
In Loftus-Cheek’s case, that’s the context which defeats any argument against his move to Crystal Palace – or, more broadly, the decision to allow him to leave on loan. If a Chelsea manager of the future is ever to risk adjusting the team’s mechanism in a way which accommodates this player in a worthwhile sense, he will need a reference point to justify that decision. Youth football can never provide it, neither can sporadic appearances from the substitutes’ bench or awkward performances in unfamiliar roles. The only alternative is to place him with a team who can help provide an instructive insight into his future. A team who don’t punish his every mistake with immediate substitution or demotion, but who are forced by their own limitations to tolerate trial and error and, crucially, improvement.
It’s essential. The opportunity to play at all will always be the starting point, but that’s become such an emphasis now that the circumstances in which it occurs are being overlooked. The context must be fair and it must also be properly descriptive – without that, promotion to the first-team is essentially a quantum leap in faith that contending clubs who have grown accustomed to titles, trophies and European revenue streams can never feel comfortable making.