The international break is here, but not as we know it. UEFA have introduced a new tournament titled the Nations League in an attempt to quell the general apathy and discontent felt towards friendly games, and the first round of fixtures take place this weekend.
Over the next six days, England face Spain and Switzerland. After reaching a World Cup semi-final, Gareth Southgate has gone for continuity, naming a familiar looking squad to the one he brought to Russia. Jamie Vardy and Gary Cahill have retired and there’s no place for youngsters Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho, despite rumours of their inclusion.
One man with a lot riding on the international break is Ruben Loftus-Cheek. On the fringes of Chelsea’s first team in Antonio Conte’s title winning campaign, Loftus-Cheek joined Crystal Palace on loan last season to get more game-time. His form was outstanding and he made his England debut against Brazil in late 2017.
At the World Cup, Loftus-Cheek was brought on as a substitute in England’s 2-1 victory over Tunisia, impressing with his power and directness.
No sooner had the tournament ended, speculation already surfaced regarding Loftus-Cheek’s Chelsea future. He was linked with a return to Selhurst Park and also a move abroad, but the player himself was determined to remain at Stamford Bridge. He cut his holidays short to join preseason early in order to impress new coach Maurizio Sarri and reportedly turned down a loan to Bundesliga giants Schalke.
Still, his playing time has been restricted to two substitute appearances and he didn’t even make the bench in two of Chelsea’s first four Premier League matches. Sarri has favoured Ross Barkley, who Loftus-Cheek essentially replaced in the England squad, which Loftus-Cheek must have found some irony in. The signings of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic have made competition for places even sterner still, so he faces a fight on his hands to establish himself at his boyhood club.
When asked about Loftus-Cheek’s performance against Bournemouth on Saturday, Sarri was positive and praised his application in training.
“I’m very, very happy with him. Because in the last 10 days he has improved a lot. Starting from September we will play every three days. I think Ruben will be very, very important and very useful to us.”
Questions mostly centre on whether or not Loftus-Cheek can get up to speed with Sarri’s idiosyncratic style of football, but his coach believes it’s only a matter of time. “He has to improve, just in order to play my football,” Sarri continued. “He has great qualities, from the physical point of view, from the technical point of view. I think he needs to improve from the tactical point of view. He’s a very good player and can improve in the defensive phase.”
Southgate had little hesitation in naming Loftus-Cheek in his latest squad, but you get the sense that he requires a couple of big performances in these upcoming games to really solidify his place in the manager’s mind.
Fortunately for Loftus-Cheek, the opportunity is there. For all the areas in the England side that worked during the summer, one could argue that their biggest weakness was in midfield. Jordan Henderson is capable rather than spectacular, Dele Alli always looks more comfortable in an advanced role, Eric Dier is a central defender playing out of position and Jack Wilshere’s reversion to the mean has left him on the outside looking in.
If Southgate persists with the 3-4-2-1 variant formation he deployed in Russia, that leaves space for two central midfielders. Henderson is a certain starter, so the spot alongside him is up for grabs. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s long-term injury absence, Loftus-Cheek presents a unique option for Southgate as a dynamic ball carrier.
“We know the talent he has. You can see the ability he has to hold people off, his speed of feet and the strength when he is running with the ball,” Southgate stated in June. “It’s still early for him. He’s still learning the game really, even as an England international, as he has so few league appearances under his belt and is incredibly raw. But we believe in him. A super talent, and different to the other players we have.”
The next few couple of months are pivotal for Loftus-Cheek and it begins this week. He will know as much as anyone that he needs to grasp his chance and impress. The regular place he craves for club and country will be earned and not given. Will he fall the way of most Chelsea youth graduates and leave for pastures new or will he forge a path for those behind him? It will be intriguing to see how it plays out.
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