Few Chelsea academy graduates are as divisive as Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Plenty of rival fans accuse him of being wildly overrated, yet many Blues fans will defend as the second coming of our Lord and saviour all day long.
His critics were out in full force after Chelsea’s recent 3-1 win over Brighton, in which Loftus-Cheek was, honestly, abysmal. He looked visibly furious with himself as he was hauled off after 61 awful minutes of action, and with good reason.
Twitter was overloaded with comments, and Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher’s insistance that he is doomed to fade into mediocrity didn’t help things, but it speaks volumes of the crossroads at which Loftus-Cheek finds himself.
His career has followed a bizarre trajectory. Despite all the hype around him, Loftus-Cheek has started just 15 Premier League games for Chelsea, and that’s often why he is mistakenly described as a ‘youngster’.
In reality, he’s 24, but has barely played any football.
Loftus-Cheek looked to be finding his feet towards the end of Maurizio Sarri’s tenure, only for a devastating Achilles injury to bring him down to earth. He has played just 288 minutes of football since May 2019, and it shows.
Against Brighton, he was guilty of making the wrong decisions in attack and giving up possession far too often. He looked sloppy and uncomfortable, but that’s hardly surprising as Loftus-Cheek was deployed out of position.
Playing as an auxiliary striker did not help Loftus-Cheek find his rhythm. Despite 2016-Antonio Conte’s insistence, that’s not where he does his best work, and the frustrating thing is that the Chelsea staff will know that.
Current assistant boss Jody Morris worked with Loftus-Cheek at academy level and had a front-row seat to watch the Englishman’s stock begin to grow. He wasn’t impressing as a striker or a winger, but as a central midfielder.
Comparisons to Yaya Touré have never been far away for Loftus-Cheek, who made his name by embarking on marauding runs using his imposing blend of physicality and agility. He was unstoppable at youth level when played in this role.
If you look back at the 2018/19 season, in which Loftus-Cheek forced his way into Sarri’s thinking, he was playing as a midfielder in a 4-3-3. He did it to perfection for weeks on end because that’s what he knows best – starting from deep and building up the momentum to bulldoze through defences.
We know Frank Lampard likes using a 4-3-3, and if he chooses that system one week, Loftus-Cheek has to be used in a central role. No wide play, just box-to-box dominance.
However, it seems like the boss may have to stick to a 4-2-3-1 formation to get all his big names in. Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz probably make up that front four, so where do we put Loftus-Cheek.
Easy – slide him alongside N’Golo Kanté at the base of the midfield.
The 4-2-3-1 was a staple of Chelsea’s academy during Loftus-Cheek’s time there, and he was regularly dropped into this deeper role. He often started there, including in the Blues’ run to the UEFA Youth League title in 2014/15.
The creativity and flair were left to Jeremie Boga, Izzy Brown and Charly Musonda, with Loftus-Cheek given the freedom to roam around in midfield. He would pick the ball up in deeper positions and burst through the lines to attack the goal, and defenders couldn’t figure out how to stop him.
When Loftus-Cheek gets going, you can see glimpses of that in his game. Whenever he picks up the ball, he looks at goal and sees whether he can charge forward. That’s what he wants to do, but nobody is letting him.
Playing him in that deeper role would give Chelsea that extra edge in attack which they have often lacked. Linking defence and midfield has been a major problem for the Blues in recent years, and that’s what peak Loftus-Cheek does best.
Loftus-Cheek is running out of time. He knows that, fans know that and Chelsea will know that. It’s time to stop with the experiments and get back to what works best.