Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s situation at Chelsea defines the plight of English youngsters

Loftus-Cheek

When Jadon Sancho made his debut for the England national side in the UEFA Nations League game against Croatia last week, it was a refreshing sign for many. While Sancho played only about 15 minutes of the goalless draw, he had two moments in which he proved that he can be a real danger if handed the time to impress. And that too, was an encouraging sign to not just fans of the side, but for young players out there who desire to represent England someday in the future.

Hundreds of kilometres away from an empty HNK Stadion in Rijeka, Ruben Loftus-Cheek would have been sitting feet-up in front of his television somewhere in London, watching Sancho make his debut and Nathaniel Chalobah do the same in the 3-2 win over Spain. Note that Chalobah has played only four minutes for Watford so far this season, but has made about 97 appearances for England on other levels.

And that would have been a very disappointing sight for Loftus-Cheek, who had played in the World Cup for the Three Lions. But perhaps, he isn’t alone. There are and have been many players over the past few years who have been where Loftus-Cheek currently is. But the Chelsea man’s situation defines and sums up every bit of it.

One of the best Chelsea youngsters over the past few years

The Lewisham-born midfielder is a product of Chelsea’s youth academy and has been one of those rare products of the club to have come this close to breaking into the first team over the past two years. While Chelsea have been a big part of his development, they have become a reason for hindering his development and progress as well.

Before Antonio Conte took charge at Chelsea, Loftus-Cheek was, by far, the best Blues youngster. Jose Mourinho, who is never really a manager who plays the youngsters more than the tried and trusted players, kept Loftus-Cheek close to the first-team every single week. It was he who had given Loftus-Cheek his debut.  When Jose Mourinho plays a youngster, you can’t help but know that the player really is special.

During Antonio Conte’s first season in-charge, Loftus-Cheek had come close to becoming a regular at the club. Largely because of a lack of a second-choice striker behind Diego Costa, the Englishman was used as a striker and an advanced attacking midfielder and his performances had attracted praise from fans and Conte alike. Because of that, fans began demanding for the player to play more than he did.

As the season went on, Loftus-Cheek’s time on the pitch was reduced and as the Chelsea brigade rolled on towards winning the title, everyone forgot about this promising youngster who deserved a chance to play in the first team more often.

Following Diego Costa’s major fallout with Conte, Chelsea did sign Alvaro Morata and had Michy Batshuayi to play second-fiddle to the Spaniard, but the demand was again to get Loftus-Cheek some games, before he was loaned out to Crystal Palace in an attempt to make sure that he got more minutes than he would have at Chelsea, who had signed Danny Drinkwater that summer on deadline day for a fee of 35 million pounds.

Crystal Palace and success with England

Loftus-Cheek though, proved to many that he is the real deal. Despite Palace’s slow start to the season and grapples with relegation, Loftus-Cheek shone the brightest. Even after Roy Hodgson took charge and things started improving, Loftus-Cheek was again at the centre of everything that happened up front for Palace. Playing behind the striker, he pulled the strings for the attacking players around him.

His performances attracted attention from Gareth Southgate, who knows him very well from the days with the England Under-21s side. On his debut against the then world champions, Germany, Loftus-Cheek was England’s best player on the pitch and was handed the man of the match accolade.

A call-up to the World Cup followed and he appeared four times in the tournament, often acting as a gamechanger from the midfield. It was widely felt that Loftus-Cheek’s time had finally come, after years of shuffling across teams and reserves of all kinds.

Loftus-Cheek has been brave enough to fight for his place

Fast forward to today, it represents a typical case of an English youngster who isn’t being given enough time on the pitch, despite he having impressed on the international stage and having done well for his loan club last season.

While Chelsea are infamous for not doing well enough in youth production and for selling youngsters for a profit value when they tend to come of age, Loftus-Cheek’s situation has been created because of how much money there is in football and how it is affecting the development of English youngsters.

He certainly had the chance to join Schalke on loan this past summer, but being the confident youngster that he is, Loftus-Cheek rejected it and decided to fight for his place in the first-team. Joining Schalke would undoubtedly have been a path to more success for him, but the lure of breaking into one of the biggest clubs in the world was there. And following an impressive World Cup, any player would feel that he should be playing more regularly.

A victim of modern-day football

But in the modern scenario, big clubs would rather spend on a proven player of international value instead of bringing up an unproven youngster. After all, they won’t have any issues with bringing in a fully international quality player because they have the money. And the Premier League has become so competitive in the upper reaches that every top side is looking to get as many best players as possible. Since they have the money, they don’t see the point in promoting someone who has never been regular for a senior top side.

Like Sancho, Loftus-Cheek could well have gone to Germany and would have been a regular at Gelsenkirchen. But any youngster will be confident and excited of his chances at his favorite club, after he’s played in the World Cup. Much like Phil Foden, who came back from a terrific show in India during the U17’s FIFA World Cup, Loftus-Cheek was brave enough to accept the risk and stay at the club.

 

The case of Ademola Lookman is similar but contextually different. He was a major part of the English Under-20s side that won the World Cup last year, but he still could not break into the Everton first team. He was though, brave enough to move on loan to RB Leipzig, where he scored five times in 11 appearances.

He accepted his fate and went on loan, but he had age on his side. He is 20, while Loftus-Cheek is 22 and is at the vital juncture in his career. He can’t let his career stall at a club which has the likes of N’Golo Kante, Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic, Cesc Fabregas, Ross Barkley and Danny Drinkwater jostling for positions in the midfield. There is no chance that he breaks into the first team, as things stand.

The sooner Loftus-Cheek is brave enough to accept that he has to move on and give up dreams about playing regularly for Chelsea, the better it will be. There will sure be clubs after him and he just needs to put his name out there. He will make a decision that many English youngsters behind him will look up and follow. Even Phil Foden, for that matter.

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