When Gareth Southgate was asked to consider the curious career of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, ahead of his England debut against Wembley tomorrow night, the England manager’s first observation was that the Chelsea man had “always been the biggest boy in the playground”.
There is no question that the 21-year-old is an imposing physical presence, just like his Chelsea club-mate Tammy Abraham, but it has not been Loftus-Cheek’s physique alone that had been the making of his career, and Southgate was clear that to assume so would be to misunderstand what he does. Loftus-Cheek’s appeal is the silkiness of his touch, his passing and finishing, and it is the non-urgency of his style on the pitch that have caused some managers to lose patience with him.
Now on loan at Crystal Palace, he starts his first England game in his first senior call-up against Germany, a tough ask but a great opportunity for a man whose potential is rated very highly, at Chelsea and the Football Association. "He's always been the biggest kid in the playground, but he's not a player who's survived on physical strength,” Southgate said. “He's a player of great technique. He's a different sort of player, at his best in behind the opposition midfield driving at defences. Great technical quality, dribbling ability, power. I think he's a really exciting player.
"I was hoping to bring him in last month but he had an injury. I saw him at Liverpool earlier in the season. He's a player I’ve worked with since Under-15s. He's suffered with growing as early as he did in terms of game-time throughout his career [he has always played up age groups]. He's quite a quiet lad. So I think I'm hoping he gets a lift in confidence from how we see him, the level we think he's capable of.”
Loftus-Cheek made his Chelsea debut aged 18 under Jose Mourinho in January 2014, and since then it has been a mixed bag including that monumental public admonishment from his former manager for not tracking back in a friendly in Australia in June the following year. The problem for Loftus-Cheek was alluded to by Southgate: not yet mature enough for Chelsea’s first team, but way too good for junior football, as evidenced by his playground goal for his club’s Under-21s against Liverpool two years ago.
Speaking this week, Loftus-Cheek said that he was not sure if his loan would result in him going back to Chelsea as an established player or whether, like his friend Nathaniel Chalobah, he would be obliged to leave on a permanent deal in order to progress.
“I had a vision and it became quite strong that I wanted to go from Chelsea,” he said. “I felt like I needed to play a lot, so I came in and said I wanted to go away from Chelsea and play games. So we came to an agreement.
“You can only improve so much in training. Games and training are completely different for sharpness and fitness. So for me to get to that next level I needed to play regular football, whether it be the Premier League or in Germany. So that was the decision. Chelsea is a massive club. There are high demands and the pressure is massive. For managers to play a load of young players and bring a load of young players through at the same time, I can imagine it’s difficult.”
The departure of Michael Emenalo, the club’ technical director, will be a blow to the careers of all those young players whose progress was painstakingly charted in loan moves and pre-season tour opportunities and certainly Loftus-Cheek could make no commitments about his future.
“I don’t know. I’m really focussed now on Palace and I’m fully committed to Palace right now. All my focus is on the here and now and improving, whatever happens.” The problem for Loftus-Cheek at Chelsea has been the consistency of his appearances, and being able to claim a position for his own among the established star of Antonio Conte’s side and Southgate said that he would play him “in a midfield role” against the Germans. Southgate hinted that would likely to be more central as opposed to right-sided, where Loftus-Cheek has been deployed by Roy Hodgson in recent weeks out of necessity more than anything.
There is no question that Loftus-Cheek is a more natural No 10, the problem being one of perception: he does have a tendency to trot on to the pitch like a man who has played 100 games for his club rather than a hungry young professional. The volatility of his form has been a major issue at Chelsea where the club have tried to get to the bottom of why he blows hot and cold – in training as well as matches.
Mourinho was rather more blunt in that game against Sydney FC when Loftus-Cheek was substituted after 27 minutes and reminded that if the likes of Frank Lampard were prepared to cover the hard yards then he should too.
“I remember it,” said Loftus-Cheek. “It’s all part and parcel of making the transition from being an academy player to first-team football. At that moment, I was 19 and I was young. But I took it and thought ‘I’m going to work harder’. Whatever anyone says, Jose has won so many medals and trophies that I would have been daft not to listen to him.”