Chelsea are widely regarded as having one of the best youth academies in English football. The academy has dominated youth football over the last few seasons, having one the U-21 and the UEFA Youth Leagues in 2014 and the FA Youth Cup in 2012, 2014 and 2015. Albeit a very successful academy, Chelsea are often criticised for not producing any talent since John Terry. However, there is one prospect that could be about to break this pattern. Ruben Loftus-Cheek made his break into the Chelsea first team last season and has been earmarked by Mourinho as a future Chelsea star.
Who is Ruben Loftus-Cheek?
Loftus-Cheek has been a part of the Chelsea youth academy since the age of 8. He has progressed through the ranks and broke into Chelsea U21 squad in the 2012/13 season. Although only making five appearances, the tall midfielder became a solid fixture in the U21 squad for the following season. The 2013/14 season saw him make 24 appearances in the U21 and UEFA Youth Leagues, while also winning the U21 Championship and the FA Youth Cup. The 2014/15 season however was Loftus-Cheek’s breakout year. He managed 21 games for the U21 side, scoring once and gaining one assist, moreover he played seven times in the UEFA Youth League and played in the final, winning 3-2 over Shakhtar Donetsk. Such were his excellent performances that he was called into the first team for his debut against Sporting Lisbon. He was subsequently elevated to the first team permanently and played an hour against Liverpool. This season he has been praised by Mourinho who termed him as one of his “three eggs” and also praised his performance against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Internationally Loftus-Cheek has steadily progressed through the ranks and has been rewarded by being called up to the England U21 squad. He was also included in Gareth Southgate’s European U21 squad for the U21 Euros which struggled to impress.
Style, Strengths and Weaknesses
At 6’3”, Loftus-Cheek is a powerhouse of a centre midfielder. In the mould of a Yaya Toure or Patrick Viera, Loftus-Cheek has the ability to dominate the central area. Within Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1, he is a prototypical Mourinho player; tall, powerful and strong. Although he can play further up the pitch, his best position is as a CDM. He is very good at picking the ball up from deep and driving forward. In order to be a holding midfielder in the Premier League however, he will need to work on his defensive work. As Mourinho recently complained, he doesn’t seem to work much without the ball. Moreover, there is a huge difference picking the ball up from deep in the reserves compared to the Premier League. This will come with time but also if he is paired with another midfielder like Matic or Fabregas; midfielders who can either do the defensive work or take care of the passing respectively.
Although a naturally right-footed player, he is quite happy using his left and is surprisingly good with the ball at his feet. He also possesses good speed for his height and coupled with his potential strength, he could prove too much for opposing midfielders. At the top level at football he will have to pick the right times to drive from deep or simply pass the ball. Due to his superior talent and strength his decision making is never really tested at the U21 level. He often glides past players with his pace and skill. He often leads the counter attack but he will need to learn to let the play develop sometimes. Having said that, watching him dribble past three or four players is a pleasure to watch. He can also pick a pass and when in the final third he is adept at sliding through balls into the attackers. When in possession in the middle third, he has an excellent short range of passing. He delivers the ball with pace and on target. He can also play one-twos and utilises the space well. He doesn’t have a huge long range passing game. He can pass in the air, but he seems more comfortable keeping it on the deck. Moreover, his movement off the ball is very smart. Loftus-Cheek seems to be able to read the game quicker than others and can find pockets of space to operate in.
In terms of going forward, he can still see a slide pass but he won’t be scoring many goals. His shooting still needs some work but it doesn’t seem to be an integral part of his game. In terms of his defensive ability, there is a huge amount of potential. His size is perfectly suited to be a CDM. It seems like he could either be a tough tackler or an interceptor. With time playing for the first team both these attributes should improve quickly. His athleticism should help him greatly with this. What will be hard is the balance between running with the ball from deep and when to keep it neat and tidy. He has so much potential and power that you don’t want him to lose it, but he will need to be careful in deciding when to pick his moments. Furthermore, for his height he doesn’t get many goals from set-piece situations either.
All in all Ruben Loftus-Cheek is incredibly well developed as a dribbler. He’s a very neat and tidy short range passer. His build is ideal and he seems to glide past players with ease. He needs to learn his defensive role but with a Matic next to him this should be no problem. With more game time he should learn when to pass and when to run. His tackling and long range passing needs work. In the Premier League he won’t have much space, so his reading of the game needs to be very good, especially due to his position.
What does the future hold?
Loftus-Cheek has the time and a strong team to help him settle and learn. I see him playing as a CDM in the future, the only problem is when. The problem with Chelsea youngsters is that not many seem to make the final step. At such a formative age, regular playing time is essential. If Mourinho stays true to pushing him through, then there is no doubt Loftus-Cheek will become a Chelsea and England regular.
Written by Bill McLoughlin
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