It’s a mark of how badly Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been used by previous Chelsea managers that the 585 minutes of first-team football he’s racked up under Maurizio Sarri equates to almost a third of his total game time in a Blues shirt.
And yet those 585 minutes afforded to him this season are still not enough for a player of his quality. Loftus-Cheek will turn 23 years old in January, the period of his career where he can be considered a bright prospect is almost over.
He needs to take the next step in his development, to become a regular for a Premier League side. He had that during a loan spell at Crystal Palace last season and understandably is no longer content with sporadic appearances at Chelsea.
Reports emerged earlier this week that Loftus-Cheek will push for a loan move in January if his first-team opportunities are limited in December.
However, prior to the defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sarri was adamant the England international will not be leaving Stamford Bridge in the winter transfer window.
“I want him to stay with me, to stay with us, and so I think there is no chance,” the Italian explained.”He played some matches in the Europa League and the Carabao Cup and he played some matches in the Premier League without starting. At the moment he is very important for us.
“He had some problems to understand very well what I want but now he is improving and in the last two matches I was really very happy with him.”
Dancing with Wolves
The Italian backed up that claim by including Loftus-Cheek in the starting XI against Wolves. The England international repaid that trust by scoring the opening goal, albeit via a fortuitous deflection.
The game itself was curious. Chelsea dominated the first half but didn’t kill off the home side. Wolves then hit back in the second period and got ahead with two quick goals.
It was at this moment, with the Blues trailing, that Blues managers of years past would’ve hooked Loftus-Cheek. It’s easy to take off the inexperienced instead of the superstar, after all.
But Sarri left the academy graduate on the field and instead brought off N’Golo Kanté as Chelsea searched for a route back into the game. Loftus-Cheek went on to complete 90 minutes, only the third time he’s done so for the Blues in the Premier League.
It was another indication of Sarri’s growing faith in the 22-year-old. And why a potential loan move in January, no matter if he rarely features in the coming weeks, could be disastrous for his Chelsea career.
Sarri is not a man to deviate away from his tactical structure. He is very much of the Pep Guardiola mindset that if Plan A isn’t working, then Plan B is finding a way to make Plan A better.
It’s why any player in the starting XI has to be 100 per cent clued up on the system. There is no learning on the job. And Sarri made that clear earlier in the campaign when discussing Loftus-Cheek.
“He’s a great player from the technical point of view and from the physical point of view,” Sarri said after the midfielder featured in a Europa League win over Vidi.
“But he has to improve from a tactical point of view. I want more from the tactical point of view because we conceded three or four counter-attacks to the opponent. We have to do better, especially in this case with the midfielders.”
A quick learner
Loftus-Cheek has featured in seven Chelsea games since Sarri delivered that assessment. Impressively he has struck six goals, three of which have come in his last three Premier League outings.
That knack of finding the back of the net is rare among Chelsea midfielders; Mateo Kovačić has yet to score since arriving on loan from Real Madrid while Kanté has a solitary effort to his name. Ross Barkley is a more obvious goal threat but even he has just three strikes to his name.
Another aspect where Loftus-Cheek excels compared to his midfield peers at Stamford Bridge is going past players. His imposing frame, quick feet and sharp mind makes it easy to manoeuvre past defenders.
In the Europa League this term, where he has played 310 minutes, Loftus-Cheek has averaged 4.64 successful take-ons per 90. Barkley, in 294 minutes, has achieved 0.91 successful take-ons per 90 in 294 minutes. Kovačić (4.19) and Kanté (0.87) also trail the England midfielder but have featured less often.
Defensively there is still room for improvement, although his display against Wolves, in which he made two tackles and a team-high three interceptions, suggests that is happening.
The next step
It’s clear Loftus-Cheek is starting to make an impression at Chelsea. He’d prefer more game time but this season he’s made the most of the minutes afforded to him.
And he must continue to do so. If he’s given 20 minutes to change a game, then take them and make an impact. A 15-minute cameo in a comfortable win? Go and get on the scoresheet.
Every appearance will allow him to hone his game under Sarri, to understand what his manager wants from his midfielders.
If Loftus-Cheek was to push for a loan move away in January and get his wish, he’d lose six months of playing under the Italian. And he’d return in the summer well behind Barkley, Kanté and Kovačić – assuming he signs permanently – in their understanding of the system.
And that could prove the end of his Chelsea career. He wouldn’t want yet another campaign as fourth choice, at best, and Sarri is unlikely to give much game time to a player who isn’t completely up to speed with his methods.
So while it’s understandable Loftus-Cheek’s patience as worn thin over the years, he is on the cusp of realising his potential at Stamford Bridge. Perhaps good things come to those who wait after all.