Ruben Loftus-Cheek shines to give timely reminder to Southgate | Chelsea

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A quick quiz question: can you name each of the six players who played in midfield for England at the 2018 World Cup? Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, with their goals, perhaps spring most immediately to mind. Then there was the penalty that Eric Dier converted in the shootout against Colombia and the one that Jordan Henderson did not. That’s the easy(ish) four, but a special bonus prize to anybody who recalled Fabian Delph’s two starts against Belgium or the fact that when Alli was injured against Tunisia he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who retained his place for the group games against Panama and Belgium and then started the third-place play-off as well.

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It has been Loftus-Cheek’s fate to exist on the periphery of English football’s consciousness. His talent was obvious, a brooding grace encapsulated in a muscular 6ft3in frame but denied pitch-time by the superclubs’ habit of stockpiling players. It’s not insignificant that when he made his England debut, only eight months before the last World Cup, it was having impressed during a loan spell at Crystal Palace.

And then came the injuries; repeated back problems, an achilles ruptured in a charity game against New England Revolution, a vague, entirely non-medical, sense that he might be too big for his talents, that there was some irreconcilable disconnect between his technical ability and his size and athleticism. His shorthand tag switched from young-talent-deserves-more-of-a-chance to great-potential-sadly-undermined-by-injury. It comes as something of a surprise to realise he is still only 26.

Loftus-Cheek hasn’t played for England since a friendly against the USA in November 2018. Three of his seven England starts came at the last World Cup but, as another World Cup approaches, the sense after Saturday’s 1-1 draw between Chelsea and Manchester United is that he might have another World Cup role to play.

It was not an easy game in which to thrive. As Fred prepared to come on for Jadon Sancho six minutes into the second half of the draw at Stamford Bridge, the Brazilian received lengthy instruction from Erik ten Hag, who explained his role using a magnetic tactics board.

Peering over Ten Hag’s shoulder from the Stamford Bridge press box, the most striking aspect was how many counters there were, how small the pitch appeared. Which, in fairness, was pretty much how the game felt for long stretches. There did seem to be a lot of players; there were periods in both halves when the thought occurred that maybe pitches need to be bigger, that expecting anybody to find space in such a congested environment was absurd.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek takes on Manchester United’s Antony
Ruben Loftus-Cheek takes on Manchester United’s Antony. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

Was this something else to be added to the litany of things about the game that should be changed? That, even in this era of perfect playing surfaces and automatic first touches, the human frame has changed to such an extent that the dimensions the Victorians laid out for the game themselves need changing? But then another thought occurred, which is that we’ve been a little spoiled by the relentless passing of Manchester City and the remorseless pressing of Liverpool, and that is how matches between the league’s elite are supposed to look. They’re not meant to be stretched; there isn’t supposed to be space. Rather, they’re supposed to be tight and tense, decided by a yard generated by a glimmer of attacking brilliance or a momentary lapse of defensive concentration.

This was a game fundamentally about the midfields. At first, United, with an extra man in the centre, dominated – Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes able to pick their way around Jorginho and Loftus-Cheek. Graham Potter redressed that nine minutes before half-time, withdrawing Marc Cucurella for Mateo Kovacic and switching to a diamond midfield. Suddenly it was Chelsea who had the man advantage in the middle and the theatre of action moved 20 yards towards the United goal.

So Ten Hag had to take action, which he did by taking off Sancho for Fred and moving Fernandes to the left. The midfields were then evenly matched and the game essentially became a battle of set-plays. Casemiro excelled, but so too did Loftus-Cheek.

Hyping in-form players in the run-up to the World Cup, as though plans drawn up over the course of years should be ripped up for the flavour of the month, is one of the more unfortunate aspects of football journalism, but the centre of midfield is an area where England have a problem. With Kalvin Phillips injured and Henderson’s form uncertain, who will partner Declan Rice? Jude Bellingham is the man in possession, and he played well in the games against Italy and Germany and scored twice in Borussia Dortmund’s 5-0 demolition of Stuttgart on Saturday, but may be a slightly more front-footed player than Gareth Southgate would ideally deploy in the role. There is a vacancy there, even if only as back-up.

Amid the hubbub, Loftus-Cheek had the highest pass accuracy of any Chelsea midfielder on Saturday. No Chelsea player had more shots or made more interceptions than him and nobody on the pitch was fouled more than him. He wins the ball back, is very hard to dispossess and offers an attacking threat both in open play and from set-pieces. Southgate knows him and clearly once rated him.

Perhaps, four years on, after all the pain and all the frustration, Loftus-Cheek’s time is about to come again.

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