It might have been a very different season for Crystal Palace had it not been for their lengthy injury list.
The Eagles have been crippled by misfortune this term, losing a number of key players to the physio room over the course of the campaign. But one player could be about to return just as his team needs him most.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is reportedly back in training after recovering from the ankle injury that has seen him miss the past two months. While it is still early days in the 22-year-old’s return, he could feature against Huddersfield Town this weekend.
It’s unlikely that he will start, but an appearance off the bench might not be out of question.
“It was scary because we didn’t know how long it would take and what was the best road to go down,” the on-loan Chelsea midfielder said, highlighting how many initially believed his injury to be far worse than it actually turned out to be true. “But I went back to Chelsea for physio and rehab and worked hard to get back.”
Palace need the attacking midfielder, not just back on the pitch, but back to his best as Roy Hodgson’s side find themselves in the bottom three after a run of four straight defeats.
They need a catalyst if they are to stay in the Premier League and the hope at Selhurst Park is that Loftus-Cheek can be that spark.
Often used on the left side of a 4-4-2 formation, he was is a driving force for Palace –he averages three dribbles per game, putting him behind only Wilfried Zaha.
It hasn’t helped that both players have spent the past two months injured. In their absence Palace have become a predictable outfit in the attacking third.
In terms of key passes, Loftus-Cheek is also one of Crystal Palace’s most productive players, averaging 1.4 per 90 minutes. When compared to other the Eagles’ other wide players, a position Hodgson has deployed the on-loan midfielder in this season, he’s 0.4 behind Andros Townsend and way ahead of Jeffrey Schlupp.
Interestingly, all three players make a similar amount of passes per 90 minutes.
Loftus-Cheek’s impact can be seen when looking at Palace’s xG (expected goals) stats for the season. With the versatile midfielder in the team, between August and December, their xG value per match stood at 1.42.
Since the England international suffered his ankle injury at the end of the year, that xG value per match has fallen to 1.32. Between August and December, Palace had the seventh highest xG value in the Premier League. In the time since then, though, they have recorded the fourth worst.
The 0.10 difference might not seem like much but over the entire campaign it’s almost four goals, and Palace have only scored 28 times in 30 Premier League matches this term.
Hodgson’s men have struggled badly away from home, illustrated by the fact they have won just once on their travels this season. That solitary victory came against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium and Loftus-Cheek was instrumental in Palace claiming three points that day.
The Crystal Palace No.8 tends to play some of his best football on the road. Statistically, several of his best individual performances have come away from Selhurst Park, like in the 0-0 draw with West Bromwich Albion, when he made three key passes and performed four successful dribbles, or in the 1-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield, when he had similar joy.
The young attacking midfielder has maintained a pass completion average of 82.6 per cent over the season. That’s expected for a player of his type, averaging a similar pass success rate as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but more than Pascal Groß, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli.
Looking at the crude statistics, Loftus-Cheek so far has two assists and a goal – which came in a win over Stoke City in November – this season. He does, however, have an xG of 2.51 and an xA of 2.80 which shows he is getting and creating high quality chances.
Townsend and Zaha are the only midfielders at Palace to average more shots per 90 minutes, and even that isn’t an entirely fair comparison because of the former’s central role and the latter’s occasional use as a forward.
Loftus-Cheek’s value to Crystal Palace and their efforts to avoid relegation is obvious. Getting him back on a pitch and keeping him fit between now and the end of the season would be a profound boost to the cause.