Last night on Match of the Day 2, Ruud Gullit was waxing lyrical about a young, English Premier League player. When a man with such global pedigree is coming out with quotes such as “I believe in him” and saying that this player is a “future England player”, you’d think there was some worthy hype around such a talent. Simultaneously, a young English playmaker is being valued at over £40m by his club, and being linked with every top Premier League club in the book.
These players are different.
RLC getting his opportunity
The ‘future England player’ in question is Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Another talent to be chucked out into the loan system by Chelsea, his time has come later than some of his compatriots. In fact, if his time had come with his compatriots then he would probably be contracted to a different club right now; he’s seen Nat Chalobah, Nathan Ake and Dominic Solanke all move on from Stamford Bridge this summer.
Loftus-Cheek has always been set apart from the rest, since José Mourinho first publically introduced his band of promising yet inevitably un-used youngsters, and has been labelled as the most talented out of the bunch by the Chelsea hierarchy. However, as you may expect, this hasn’t necessarily transformed into game-time; Loftus-Cheek has made 32 appearances in three years, most of which in substitute cameos.
An impressive start
Now he has been given a chance to play, and has been sent to south London to develop under Frank de Boer at Crystal Palace. On arrival, many doubted whether the 21-year-old would be able to oust club captain Jason Puncheon in the Palace ‘number 10’ role. Yet he has completed both games so far in the Premier League and, despite two disappointing defeats, Loftus-Cheek is already showing the Premier League what he is made of.
In two games, Loftus-Cheek has made three key passes with an overall pass completion rate of 89.3%. For a player in a midfield role, in a team that is currently low on attacking options and against high-pressing sides in Huddersfield Town and Liverpool, this is very impressive. He’s already become one of Palace’s key dictators in the middle of the park and looks like a man among boys – when in fact it should be the other way around.
What’s caught the eye the most, however, is his drive when he picks up the ball. His physical presence, standing at 191cm tall, allows him to bully players that try and stop him. Liverpool’s Alberto Moreno was a notable victim as Loftus-Cheek rolled the left-back and set up Christian Benteke for a glaring miss on Saturday. He’s completed 4 dribbles so far this season and been fouled 5 times – the highest in the Premier League.
This is surely the type of player that Chelsea would love in their squad right now. In fact, if Loftus-Cheek had never belonged to them, you could imagine Antonio Conte eyeing up a bid for him right now. It’s the profile of player that the Blues are currently lacking, a central playmaker who offers as much physicality as he does agility.
A tale of two playmakers
For this reason, Chelsea have been linked with Ross Barkley. The wantaway Everton international is in the dark under Ronald Koeman and is looking to find his true ability after a couple of grey seasons. As aforementioned, Barkley is a wanted man and is being linked with a new top 6 side every day.
The Toffees are currently pricing him out of the market and, if a move doesn’t materialise before Deadline Day, the 23-year-old will find it hard to wrestle his starting spot back, following the arrivals of Wayne Rooney, Davy Klassen and Gylfi Sigurdsson. As somebody who is already on the fringes of the England team, Barkley’s World Cup hopes rely on first-team football; at this point, that path is looking ever-slimmer.
It is still early in the season, but Barkley and Chelsea alike must be looking at Loftus-Cheek’s form with a slightly bitter taste in their mouths. The Blues are being linked with a £40m move for the former when the latter already belongs to them but has been sent out on loan for the year. That being said, the Chelsea hierarchy will be happy that their judgment on their young star’s ability was correct and will hope that he can continue improving as the season goes on.
Loftus-Cheek’s form should definitely prompt Chelsea to cross Barkely off of their shopping list. Yes, Barkley may be able to give Conte some performances this season, but if Loftus-Cheek sees that they’re investing heavily in another player in a very similar mould to him, then he will be following Aké, Chalobah and Solanke out of the door. He could be a World Cup player by that time – as a favourite of Gareth Southgate from the U21s – and his value could surpass that of Barkley.
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