Could Ruben Loftus-Cheek be the prodigal son Chelsea fans have been waiting for? After spending an impressive amount of time and money in rebuilding and reshaping the youth development of the club, with the academy becoming one of the most successful in the world since Roman Abramovich took over in 2003, Chelsea have reached a crossroads: John Terry, who broke through before Abramovich arrived, is still the only academy player in the last decade or so who has managed to become a top class player, securing an undisputed place in Chelsea’s first XI.
Other promising players have come and gone (McEachran, Bertrand, Cork, Kakuta & Van Aanholt to mention a few), yet Chelsea have still failed to see a single academy player become a consistent (and important) part of the first team. The aforementioned players could be counted as the first batch of young talent to come through since Roman’s £100m investment in youth development, and whilst some like Cork and (especially) Bertrand have gone on to have solid top division careers, most find themselves either in lesser leagues or in the lower divisions of the English game.
While the first batch of youngsters enlisted in the academy were quite successful – winning a FA Youth Cup in 2010 whilst finishing as runners-up in 2008 – the next group coming through at Cobham found themselves to be even more fruitful. Boasting talents such as Andreas Christensen, Nathaniel Chalobah, Tammy Abraham, and Loftus-Cheek himself, the side went on to win three out of four FA Youth Cups (finishing as runner-up in 2013) and a UEFA Youth League trophy (the youth equivalent of the Champions League), where they beat some renowned academies like Sporting (5-0 & 6-0), Roma (4-0), and Atlético en route to the final, where they faced Shakhtar and won. The atmosphere surrounding the academy was extremely positive – but would this finally be the time where we saw some of these Chelsea youngsters come through after heavy investment? Let’s fast forward to 2017.
Here we are, with almost every single aforementioned player, bar Christensen, out on loan, or sold. Nathaniel Chalobah, captain of that talented youth side, has been sold to Watford. Solanke has left for more game time at Liverpool. Whilst it seems like Christensen will be given some substantial minutes this season, the jury is still out – Chelsea managers are known to be very reluctant when it comes to giving youth a chance due to the pressure and demands for instant success – will the others make it? One could argue that this batch of youngsters have a better chance; you could reflect this on the fact that many are now playing Premier League/top division football, including Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who has found himself at Crystal Palace, compared to the previous set of youngsters who mostly struggled to get top division loans. One could argue that progress has been made, which brings us to Ruben; after a few years of being on the outskirts of the Chelsea first team, will the Palace loan finally help progress him become a more regular fixture for Chelsea?
He has been described by some as a ‘Rolls-Royce’ type player. Ruben’s talent is intriguing – very competent in most technical departments, he truly shines in one particular aspect of his game – driving runs. He combines his athleticism with his technique, often using his tall frame, power, and close control in order to make impressive runs through the middle of the park. Ruben can create chaos on the pitch with this ability of his alone – he has often gone from box to box with those driving dribbles, which makes him not only useful in possession, but also in transitions and counter attacks. Once Ruben is in full-flow, he is incredibly hard to stop.
The biggest deficiency in Ruben’s game is that he seems to peter in and out of games. He’s a potent dribbler and a nightmare for midfielders, but off the ball, he leaves a lot to be desired. If Ruben wants to make it at Chelsea or at any other top club, this is the biggest part of his game he needs to work at. It doesn’t help that he has been in between positions for his entire career, with Chelsea manager Antonio Conte even stating that he sees Ruben as a striker, but it is obvious that his true position lies in midfield, as his early performances on loan at Crystal Palace, where he just won Player of the Month, have shown. Ruben must learn the art of being a central midfielder – he needs to learn how to dictate games at the top level consistently. He has to demand the ball more, and use his frame and athleticism to get more stuck in defensively. Questions have also been asked about his general stamina – which could tie into why he dips in and out of games.
Ruben has the potential to be an incredibly interesting player if he works on these deficiencies. This loan move to Palace could prove very important for him. One of the major things holding Ruben back at Chelsea was a lack of game time. He needs consistent game time at the senior level, which could help iron out some of the aforementioned deficiencies. Whilst Palace are in disarray at the moment, having made the worst start to a top-flight season in English football history with 5 consecutive losses and no goals, Ruben has provided them with a spark, a light at the end of the tunnel. Although the team has still not scored, Loftus-Cheek has created several gilt-edged chances in the games he has been involved in, creating 1.7 key passes and completing 4.7 dribbles per 90 minutes in the Premier League (WhoScored). With star player Wilfried Zaha set to return in a few weeks, things can only go up for Palace once the two get a chance to combine and create.