Connect in the back of the net

At 21 years old, Ruben Loftus-Cheek is heading to Crystal Palace on a season-long loan deal which will present him with his first real opportunity at regular first-team football at the highest level and he cannot afford not to succeed.

Chelsea have held the reputation of having the most successful academy teams for the best part of a decade and yet there is the worrying fact that very few of the star names of those teams ever break into the first-team.

Loftus-Cheek has long been heralded as the absolute very best to come through at Stamford Bridge with Jose Mourinho introducing him into the first-team whilst he was still a teenager.

This was set to be the watershed moment that Roman Abramovich and many Chelsea supporters had dreamt of, one of their own coming through and making a place in the first-team his own.

Yet it didn’t quite happen that way.

 

Stunted

He could never quite claim a regular starting position and whilst he made 13 Premier League appearances in the 2015/16 season only four of them were from the start.

Antonio Conte’s arrival did little to help the English midfielder and he played a grand total of 31 Premier League minutes in six appearances in the club’s title winning campaign last term.

This is where the issue comes with Loftus-Cheek.

He has been given opportunities to play at Chelsea, far more than most in his position, but he hasn’t taken them. Make no mistake the opportunities he has been handed haven’t been golden, he has been given short spells of football but he hasn’t stood out as he did when first breaking into the team.

It is a mystery as much as it is unfortunate because when you look at him there seems to be everything a stereotypical elite midfielder needs. He stands at just under 6ft 3in tall, he is powerful and quick and has the range of passing necessary to succeed at the very top level.

When Chelsea were linked with Paul Pogba throughout Jose Mourinho’s second spell with the London club, it is important to note that Loftus-Cheek was always seen as someone who could grow into the Pogba figure the team needed.

 

Up against it

At such a young age it would be stupid to write the Englishman off with regards to reaching such heights but he is certainly now up against it.

A lack of football has severely damaged his development and whilst his peers across the continent are regular features in their national teams, Loftus-Cheek is facing the prospect of not even being in the conversation for a place in England’s 2018 World Cup squad when midfield is actually the team’s most glaring weakness.

Tiemoue Bakayoko’s arrival has placed him even further down the pecking order at Stamford Bridge and it is no secret that a loan move will have been welcomed by the player.

Frank de Boer’s arrival at Crystal Palace will see a shift in strategy from a team that held the principal focus of avoiding relegation throughout Sam Allardyce’s brief tenure.

 

The time is now for him to prove himself

The Eagles will be a much more possession centric unit now and Loftus-Cheek fits perfectly into this given his technical prowess. Obviously his physicality will also be of benefit to a team that is looking to avoid being dragged into yet again survival battle.

It is however on his shoulders to perform now, this is his chance to show everyone that the hype surrounding his initial development was justified; this is his chance to play Premier League football and show he belongs, no excuses.

Loftus-Cheek cannot have a situation where he doesn’t hit the ground running and ends up on Palace’s bench by the time the first chills of winter begin to bite. If he wants to go back to Chelsea and be a key player, he has to run Crystal Palace’s midfield.

Young players face challenges that those in their position didn’t face 20 years ago. Loftus-Cheek has been under intense media scrutiny since his breakthrough at Chelsea and hasn’t really been allowed to focus on his own development.

Perhaps this is a consequence of the size of the club he is at, however at some point he has to start performing and this is his chance.

 

Clean slate at Palace

De Boer has never coached in the Premier League and whilst he will look to stamp his own style on the squad and bring in his own players, Jairo Riedewald being the first, he will need to rely on players, at least in his first season, who know the league and its intricacies.

The 21-year-old Chelsea graduate is one such player and he will be working from a clean slate at Selhurst Park, it would be a real shame if he wasn’t to grab this opportunity.

A place in England’s touring party to Russia at this stage isn’t the impossible dream it would have been in years gone by when the national team boasted the finest collection of individual midfielders across the world. Now things are very different with Gareth Southgate not having one standout central midfielder.

Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe are 20 and 18 respectively and both will be key starters for France next summer, fitness permitting of course. Are the pair more naturally talented than Loftus-Cheek? Perhaps a little but the gulf is not as sizable as the differing fortunes between the three players would suggest.

 

There is still hope for the prodigy

If he can’t find success then you fear that a drop down the English league system beckons but for now there is hope that Ruben Loftus-Cheek can find a level of comfort at Palace early on and drive their team forward and hopefully fulfil his potential as England’s most gifted young midfielder of a promising generation.

 

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

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