Chelsea fans were treated to a sight they had been long awaiting, Ruben Loftus-Cheek with the ball at his feet, shrugging off opponents and driving towards goal in a warmup game with Reading ahead of the Premier League restart at the weekend where Chelsea will resume their campaign away to Aston Villa.
You have to go all the back to the 16th May 2019 for the last time Loftus-Cheek played for the first team in a competitive game. Under the lights of the Gillete Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts for Chelsea’s 3-0 victory over MLS outfit New England Revolution.
The game was organised in efforts to raise funds for Chelsea’s fight against Anti-Semitism. Titled a “Final Whistle on Hate”, the evening raised $4 million as Roman Abramovich was in attendance. Abramovich – who donated a million of his own money to charity – would have witnessed with his own eyes one of the low points of his club’s campaign.
About 69 minutes into the friendly with the Blues cruising, Loftus-Cheek would catch his foot in an uneven area of a less than pristine turf and fall to the floor in agony. Forced to leave the pitch with aid from medical staff, Maurizio Sarri threw his hat off in anger at the sight one of best players limping off.
Sarri had shared his concerns about the timing of the friendly. Although an important outreach project for the club that has only grown since, Chelsea had a Europa League Final to contest 13 days later. The fear of untimely injuries was always present and this was the worst case scenario played out in real time.
The news quickly filtered overseas with Chelsea fans waking up to the sight of a terrible injury. The pictures of the midfielder were harrowing and soon anger and frustration would flow through the reactions. The worst would be confirmed shortly after with the club confirming that Loftus-Cheek had ruptured his Achilles tendon. It felt like De Ja Vu for supporters who had only just witnessed Callum Hudson-Odoi suffer the same injury a few weeks previously at home to Burnley.
This setback could not have been crueller for the 23-year-old.
Loftus-Cheek was coming into his own. The moment the talent filled prospect had waited patiently for had finally arrived. He had quickly become a first team regular in the closing months of the 2018/19 season. A last-gasp winner at Cardiff, a stunning curler days later at home to Brighton and the Lewisham-born starlet had propelled himself into the first team. At a time when supporter frustration with the Italian coach had reached boiling point, Loftus-Cheek’s injection of energy, guile and freshness was something to smile about.
Sarri’s patient methods to demand Loftus-Cheek improved both sides of his game – tightening up his awareness and moderation between defence and attack – had helped to find the key ingredient to start to streamline the more erratic talent seen in early spells. For all the craftsmanship of Cesc Fabregas during his years at the heart of the Blues midfield, since Frank Lampard’s departure in 2014 Chelsea had lacked a reliable goalscoring threat from the middle of the park.
Even with Ruben’s growing eye for a goal, it feels naïve to make comparisons between a burgeoning academy graduate and a club icon. Instead what is fairer is to look at what the early 2019 of Chelsea’s midfield lacked and that was impetus. Jorginho’s metronomic ability was easily curtailed without dynamic movement around him and Mateo Kovacic was far from the POTY candidate we have come accustomed to under Frank Lampard.
Loftus-Cheek’s blend of natural talent, amazing physique, dangerous speed and increased match intelligence helped Sarri to start to see his vision of football realised in the run-in to the campaign. Loftus-Cheek was regularly making penetrating runs from deep, taking out two or three opponents, then connecting passes with a peer before continuing a smartly timed run into the box. This best demonstrated in his opener at home to Eintracht Frankfurt in the second leg of the Europa League Semi-Final.
The midfielder’s injury felt all the more devastating only a few months later when Frank Lampard would show up to become the club’s new head coach. Along with Jody Morris as his assistant and Joe Edwards, Chelsea had a management staff compiled of figures with the urge to create a path for young talent into the first team.
Loftus-Cheek would watch as Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori would all make explosive introductions – all scoring in a thrilling 5-2 win away to Wolves in September.
Although Loftus-Cheek is a little older than his fellow teammates, the vast array of opportunities presented to the Class of 19/20 feels foreign to the path of the midfielder at the same age under the likes of Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. Loftus-Cheek made his first team debut off the bench in the final Champions League group game at home to Sporting Lisbon in December 2014. Five months later he would be handed his first Premier League start at home to Liverpool, a week after Chelsea had secured the Premier League title.
The disaster of 2015/16 did present with it a few more chances for the then-19-year-old who started in both Domestic and European competition.
January of 2016, 13 months after his debut would be when he would finally get his name on the scoresheet. A late-run into the box connecting perfectly with a low cross would seal Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Scunthorpe United in the FA Cup. A special moment in front of a joyous home crowd.
However once Antonio Conte arrived and the Blues blitzed the Premier League the following year, Loftus-Cheek would have little time on the pitch. Fellow midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah looked more likely to breakthrough before being sold in the Summer of 2017 to Watford. Another of Loftus-Cheek’s Academy pals Nathan Ake would also say farewell to Stamford Bridge, swapping the Stamford Bridge bench for Eddie Howe’s first team on the South Coast at Bournemouth.
With Conte’s insistence on older talent and with his minutes limited and fellow hopefuls departing, Loftus-Cheek may have pondered how realistic his chance was at Chelsea. £35m had just been splashed on Tiémoué Bakayoko from Monaco and later on in the same window the club would plough another £30m into grabbing Danny Drinkwater from Leicester City.
Instead, Loftus-Cheek would embark on his first loan to Crystal Palace in the urge for regular playing time. The midfielder’s start would be fairly rocky as Palace went on to lose their first four Premier League games, causing newly appointed Frank De Boer to lose his job. The Dutchman was replaced with Roy Hodgson, only recently scarred by his failure for the national side – and from there Loftus-Cheek would flourish, featuring 24 times over the course of the season, netting 2 league goals and creating 4 assists.
Although these stats don’t make the eyes bulge, within closer inspection to his loan and the glowing appraisal of Hodgson towards Loftus-Cheek gives you the full weight of how highly the veteran coach rates the midfielder.
“He is very good at screening, keeping the ball. He’s very good at beating players. His work-rate has been very good. That’s something he has worked on.” Hodgson said in June of 2018.
“He has all the qualities you are looking for in a central midfielder. He doesn’t have any weaknesses and he will get better.”
Loftus-Cheek’s impressive performances would not go unnoticed by Gareth Southgate, being selected in England’s 2018 World Cup squad to Russia. Southgate would not be afraid to use Ruben, deploying him off the bench in England’s victories against Tunisia and Costa Rica, plus getting a full start in England’s Final Third-Placed play-off against Belgium.
Eyebrows had been majorly raised by Loftus-Cheek’s ascendency to the England squad in a short space of time. Hodsgon had maid consistent noises in interest off purchasing the midfielder from Chelsea but the Blues did not budge, insisting their youngster’s future still lied in West London.
For all of Sarri’s critics, he was the first Chelsea manager to fully give Loftus-Cheek a chance to break into his first team, rather than a cameo in a dead rubber and helped to turn the No.12 into a ready-made game changer.
Now over a year since his last appearance, Loftus-Cheek is still waiting for his official return. In another cruel twist of fate, the Coronavirus Pandemic sparking the suspension of football for nearly three months came just before Loftus-Cheek’s first action back, after training with the first team and playing a full 90 for the Development squad. Simon Johnson’s detailed piece in January for The Athletic went into great detail on the drawn out rehab process for the midfielder, revealing that Loftus-Cheek’s calf muscles had halved in size after the tear to his tendon.
Like under Sarri in 2019, there is a sense Loftus-Cheek’s reintroduction could spark something exciting within Chelsea’s team. Although it must be tempered with patience and realism given his lack of game time in the past 12 months, within time if the Spring of 2019 form is realised again, Lampard will have a unique talent on his hands.
Mason Mount has provided Chelsea with a goalscoring threat at points during the season, netting smartly in the Blues 4-0 victory over Everton in March, however Mount’s form has dipped and his raw talent still being nurtured can lead to more sporadic displays. Loftus-Cheek, a few years further down in his development is now ready to take the next step to become a consistent threat.
West Stand Lower season ticket holder and Chelsea Pitch Owners Shareholder Matthew Duchezeau has high hopes for Loftus-Cheek. “I’m excited for Ruben’s return as he offers an additional goal threat and drive from midfield. I Just hope that this long lay off has been a chance to not only fix the achilles but his other niggles.
“That is what has been frustrating with his career to date; every time he has gone on a run and looked like breaking through and establishing himself, he’s got injured or had to be managed through a run of games. I Can’t wait”.
Alongside a revitalised Mateo Kovacic, a fully-fit N’Golo Kante and a refreshed Jorginho, Loftus-Cheek adds an option Lampard has been unable to call on during the first seven months of his tenure. Chelsea’s lack of clinical edge and consistent goals from midfield remains a persistent issue. Loftus-Cheek with his late runs into the box, explosive acceleration and interplay with his teammates gives Lampard the fast-moving style of player he demands in his system. Plus, a naturally stylish technician who can move astutely out of tight spots and has found a better understanding of defensive tackling and winning fouls, something which Kovacic excels at too. That’s even without mentioning the emergence of Billy Gilmour and the role he may play in shaping Lampard’s midfield.
There has been much talk about Chelsea looking to spend big on Bayer Leverkusen’s shining star Kai Havertz for anywhere between £70-90m and although these reports energise and inspire fans belief about the Londoners rebuild to the top of the English game, they’d be foolish to brush aside the talent the club already boasts in a similar area. Loftus-Cheek at his best can provide the same, if not better than what Havertz could inject into the current Chelsea side.
Loftus-Cheek’s ongoing injury issues remains the persistent worry for his career. If the midfielder were to suffer another long-term debilitating injury, there would be fears he could fall down the path trodden by another promising English midfielder – Jack Wilshere, who never ascended the heights his earliest showings once promised. Chelsea have been no strangers to injuries this season, consistently losing key first-team players at a time to Lampard’s frustration.
With the introduction of the five-sub rule Premier League managers will have more chances to rotate their squads in a heavily congested period to complete the fixture list. Players returning from injury can be aided by this most, specifically Loftus-Cheek to cautiously reintroduce him to the intensity of Premier League competition.
Whatever’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s Chelsea career entails, there is a sense out of all the academy talents, Ruben’s journey has the possibility to be most special. His struggles with fitness, adaptation, growth, loans, opportunity and metal resilience have all come in spades for the midfielder.
The talent in his boots is undeniable and if harnessed can become priceless for Chelsea in the coming years. Though it is the struggle and fight Ruben has shown to take the long road back to the pitch which can propel him to new heights in a blue shirt.
Now is the time for Loftus-Cheek to become the club’s best player.