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Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Fulham, 2020/21

Ever since Ruben Loftus-Cheek came off the bench to make his Premier League debut for Chelsea eight days after his 19th birthday, he has been thought of as one of English football’s brightest young midfield talents. Six years on from that short cameo, in a 1-1 home draw with Manchester City, the 25-year-old remains more of a prospect than the finished article.

There have been spells of encouragement in the intervening period. An impressive season on loan at Crystal Palace in 2017/18 compelled Gareth Southgate to include him in the England squad for the World Cup, where Loftus-Cheek started three games in a three-man midfield, and his best season at Chelsea followed under Maurizio Sarri. Injuries remain a recurring theme in his trajectory, however, and he is still yet to play more than 24 Premier League games in any single season. As he turned 25 in January 2021, he had registered a moderate 10 goals and six assists from 90 league appearances.

There are plenty who nevertheless retain belief in his abilities – not least Scott Parker, who took Loftus-Cheek on loan at newly promoted Fulham for the season. “Goals, assists, grabbing games by the scruff of the neck – these are all elements of Ruben’s game that he can do,” says Parker. “There’s only a handful of players you can probably say that about, so it just shows you the capabilities he has.”

Tactical analysis
Loftus-Cheek has historically played as one of the advanced players in a midfield three, although he is capable of playing deeper. Whether he is deployed in central areas or out wide, he has a knack for finding pockets of space – the golden ticket to threatening any opposition.

He has always been viewed as an intelligent footballer who can recognise cues to make himself available for teammates, and is constantly on the move in search of space. When the ball comes to him, he looks to play quick combinations with nearby teammates (below), often with one-twos or neat flicks.

This combination play is enabled by his excellent first touch and close control, both of which are impressive for a player, at 6ft 3ins, of such physical stature. He uses his size to good effect both in possession, to hold defenders off in tight spaces, and defensively, where he wins his fair share of duels.

In the first and second phases of play, Loftus-Cheek’s positional awareness enables him to feel the opposition press, while his strength and speed allow him to carry the ball into the next phase of attack (below). In this aspect of his game, it is difficult not to compare him to Yaya Touré, who was known for making long and positive runs from deep in his own half. When he doesn’t have the space, however, he is intelligent enough to find a teammate and then look to move into space.

His best qualities come into play when the ball approaches the final third. He is adept at finding pockets in half-spaces to receive; he makes acute movements towards and then away from the ball in order to create windows of space, making himself available in areas where he can pose the biggest threat.

In his most impressive season for Chelsea, in 2018/19, he combined particularly well with Eden Hazard. The Belgian would draw defenders to him before finding Loftus-Cheek in between the lines or in behind (below); such diagonal runs in behind were well-timed and, with defenders often facing the wrong way at the time of the pass, potentially very dangerous. This, coupled with his ability to make late runs into the box, contributed to his career-high six Premier League goals in that 2018/19 season.

That is still a relatively paltry return for a player with such technical and physical ability, however, and his end product continues to prove inconsistent despite the number of good positions he finds himself in. He doesn’t always look to assert himself on games as much as a player in his position and with his qualities possibly should – a legacy, perhaps, of the injury-blighted path his career has taken to this point.

Role at Fulham
Loftus-Cheek joined a Fulham squad struggling at the start of the Premier League season, but his form has improved along with that of the team and Parker’s own adjustment to life as a top-flight manager.

The head coach employed an initial 4-2-3-1 formation upon Fulham’s return. Since he shifted to a back three, however, Loftus-Cheek has been used mostly in a supporting role to the central forward, and predominantly through the right inside channel. Overlaps from Bobby Decordova-Reid or Kenny Tete from right wing-back have given him the option to make movements towards the ball, acting as a deeper link between the three centre-backs or midfield pivots and those further forward. In these moments, his final-third involvement reduces, with the wing-backs providing more support to the likes of Ademola Lookman, Ivan Cavaleiro and Aleksandar Mitrovic.

When utilised in a higher role, Loftus-Cheek has joined the central forward in a higher pairing, with Lookman and Cavaleiro providing mobility and penetration both with and without the ball. In these moments, his forward passing can carry more threat, either in behind for the overlapping wing-backs or for central runs from Lookman or Cavaleiro (below).

In this higher role, it is also not uncommon to see Loftus-Cheek move across the pitch more, receiving in both wide areas and centrally. His own forward runs are usually made through the inside channels, and are most effective when opposition full-backs have moved up to press the Fulham wing-backs. While this creates space for him to receive, it can leave the team short of numbers in attacking areas, with the other two members of the front three often his only options for crosses or cut-backs.

His physical presence ensures that he can act as an additional target during build-up, particularly if established target man Mitrovic isn’t on the pitch. Loftus-Cheek has the second-highest aerial challenges per 90 minutes for Fulham this season; when he wins the first contact, the team’s more diminutive central runners can take advantage of any space left by centre-backs going up for that initial duel.

For all his qualities, however, Loftus-Cheek scored only one goal – in a 3-2 home defeat to Everton – and assisted none in his first half-season at Fulham. If he can up those numbers, then the coaching team at Chelsea may well be keeping a close eye on a player who could yet have a future under yet another new regime at Stamford Bridge.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek

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