Ruben Loftus-Cheek is going to be the one who breaks that unhealthy, cringeworthy Chelsea record—the one that reveals John Terry as the last man to step out of the academy and maintain a first-team position in the squad. The current captain asserted himself in the XI in 2000—15 years ago—and no other young Blue has managed the same feat...until now.
The suggestion that owner Roman Abramovich "passionately believes in developing young players," as Frank Arnesen suggested to BBC Sport, can be easily panned due to the Russian's pumping of rubles into the club. Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres, Hernan Crespo...the list of extremely expensive footballers purchased is longer than all of our arms put together.
But that statement by Arnesen is proving true; Abramovich takes a keen interest in Chelsea’s youth sector, goes to the youth games in person and has revamped the academy facilities to the tune of £20 million.
Take a look at the squad that won the UEFA Youth League this May and you’ll see the finest collection of young players anywhere on the planet. Chelsea have participated in each of the last four FA Youth Cup finals, winning three of them.
Charly Musonda, Jay Dasilva, Andreas Christensen, Jeremie Boga, Charlie Colkett, Dominic Solanke and more. It’s a remarkable curation of some of the brightest prospects on this planet, and Loftus-Cheek heads the class as Jose Mourinho looks down below for fresh talent to call upon.
April 28, 2014—Fulham vs. Chelsea, FA Youth Cup final (first leg)
Two sets of teenagers step out onto the Craven Cottage turf in front of nearly 4,500 supporters. It’s an atmosphere few, if any, of the players have experienced before.
Youth football is pretty well covered in this day and age—particularly the Chelsea side of it, thanks to dedicated Twitter accounts and Chelsea TV’s extensive coverage of the young Blues’ battles—and the main protagonists’ names are known before the game.
Mousa Dembele and Patrick Roberts of Fulham are ones to watch, while for Chelsea, it’s difficult to know which name to start with—there are that many class acts on show.
But then the game kicks off, and one boy’s quick feet and commanding demeanour steal the attention of myself and a colleague in attendance.
Loftus-Cheek begins dominating the early stages of the play, pushing forward from a deep-lying midfield role and probing for areas of weaknesses. Playing with his head up and passing forward, he is the very epitome of confidence and leadership entwined.
Then Fulham launch a counter-attack, and Loftus-Cheek tracks his man all the way to the edge of his own box, checking left and right constantly for spare men and extra runners. He intercepts the low cross and restarts the attack; inside five minutes, he’s flashed a complete midfielder’s potential, and he's taken my breath away.
His frame and size at the time—about 6’1” and more muscular than anyone not named Dembele on the pitch—gave him a considerable physical advantage over the others, and some scouts feared that perhaps warped our view of the young man. But he also boasted quickness and agility few of his height do, and the way he slinked around challenges hinted at something special.
The Blues dominated the game for long periods, using Loftus-Cheek as their anchor in every meaningful foray forward. The end result, 3-2 to Fulham, was rather fluky for the home side, but scoreline aside, one player on that pitch above all others proved they were ready for the next step.
Loftus-Cheek’s starring role against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Wednesday landed him in B/R’s Champions League Team of the Week (keeping company with Gianluigi Buffon, Diego Godin, Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo) and has pushed him to the cusp of a regular starting spot.
"I think he's in the condition to compete with the other players for positions, for opportunities, for minutes,” Mourinho told Goal after the game. "He's potentially a very good player. But you have to feed these young players, and you have to choose the right moment. But the reality is that his evolution is important and good."
In typically cryptic fashion, the Portuguese said just over 50 words on Loftus-Cheek that guarantee nothing. But we know already the former Real Madrid manager has taken a special interest in the kid, else he wouldn’t have laid into him during pre-season in June.
“He has to learn that at 19 you have to run three times more than the others,” he scolded, to the Guardian. “You have to play to your limits and not play like a superstar with the ball at your feet because this is not the under-18s.”
Special interest from Mourinho is rare, and this is a manager pushing a player he knows has enough talent to succeed and asking him to knuckle down.
A so-so performance against West Bromwich Albion on the penultimate matchday of last season could be written off due to Cesc Fabregas’ early red card, but his strolling showing against Sydney FC, which saw him subbed on then subbed off again—the ultimate signal of dissatisfaction—forced the Portuguese into action.
His performance against Maccabi Tel Aviv, then, in terms of sending a response, was genuinely excellent; it’s arguable he was the best player on the pitch despite Oscar’s defining brilliance upon returning to the starting XI. Pushing forward from deep and picking clever runs, he became a consistent option in the passing game and a threat to the Israeli outfit’s defence.
He played his part in shutting off the midfield for counter-attacks, brought some much-needed pizzazz and confidence to a side who had been in wretched form and aced the statistical market, getting through enough dribbles (six), tackles (three) and completing enough passes (54/57, 95 per cent), per WhoScored.com, to impress the floating voters too.
May 10, 2015—Chelsea vs. Liverpool, Premier League
After playing a vital role in Chelsea’s UEFA Youth League victory—first overcoming Roma in the semi-finals in Switzerland, then finishing the job against a very talented Shakhtar Donetsk side despite falling behind—Loftus-Cheek was brought in for a full senior debut against Liverpool on May 10.
With the Premier League title already secured, it stood a pressure-free game and the ideal chance for Mourinho to introduce the young Englishman to the wider world, and he aced the audition.
He left the field after an hour with a 100 per cent pass completion figure to send social media wild; rather than produce a typically rumbustious performance, surging forward and dancing between tackles, Loftus-Cheek put on a clinic of self-restraint, keeping things simple and proving efficient in the engine room.
It was on this day, too, that his lust for a sliding tackle—a dying art in 2015, it seems—jumped to the fore. Brash and bold, he continually hooked the ball clear of red shirts, using those long legs to his advantage and stretching that extra inch to make contact. As a counter-presser (pressing just after your team loses the ball higher up) he really showed his worth.
Loftus-Cheek is both a statistical and aesthetic standout—a rare commodity, it must be said. He produces numbers, visibly impacts games and, when he’s on the ball, can single-handedly dictate games no matter the age group or opponent.
It was telling that Gareth Southgate’s England under-21 side sparked into life this summer when Loftus-Cheek entered the fray from the bench.
His call-up was meant to be educational—the Three Lions had a plethora of more experienced midfield options to choose from, including team-mate Nathaniel Chalobah—but he was slung on against Sweden, and his penetrative running made a clear difference to the side. A driving run and pass for Danny Ings caused chaos in the box, and another driving run forced the corner from which Jesse Lingard netted the winner.
Away from any other tangible strength and statistical measurement, Loftus-Cheek brings that something to a team; his infectiously positive play changes the mantra of the players around him.
Given Chelsea’s awful start to their title defence, he could be just what’s required, and even if he doesn’t manage a start against Arsenal in the interim, he’s destined for stardom at Stamford Bridge.