Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s World Cup campaign has once again contained impressive doses of enormous potential, even if the Chelsea youngster still doesn’t appear the finished article. But that’s perhaps because it’s still not quite clear what type of midfielder the 22-year-old really is, and which part of the engine room his future ultimately resides in.
Following a season in which roaming No.8s were instrumental aspects of Manchester City’s domineering Premier League title win and Liverpool’s cavalier run to the Champions League final, it feels as if Loftus-Cheek is emerging at the perfect time. Gareth Southgate has carved out similar roles in England’s midfield as part of his 3-1-4-2 setup, taking advantage of a new breed of midfielder that are part No.8 and part No.10, and that’s the position Loftus-Cheek has taken up throughout the World Cup bid – including against Belgium on Thursday night.
With five dribbles to his name, there were plenty of instances in which Loftus-Cheek showed how effective he can be in that role, driving on from the engine room to become part of the forward line. His size wreaks havoc and when he manages to build up speed, he can be unstoppable on the counter – something Roy Hodgson tapped into with great effect at Crystal Palace last season.
But when compared with Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, there is a key difference. Loftus-Cheek isn’t quite as nimble or offensively threatening. Perhaps his game will get to that point on the latter front – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provides a great example of a player whose output was questioned but has really exploded into life over the last twelve months – but in his early 20s, the Blues starlet probably won’t become much more agile or faster than he is right now. Growing in strength and power seems more likely.
And thus, moving into a deeper role would perhaps be a better fit for Loftus-Cheek in the long-term. He’s got the strength, dribbling ability and composure to act almost like Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele at No.6 – receiving the ball and moving it forward wisely with effortless elegance. Particularly in the Champions League last season, it was Dembele who gave Spurs the platform to launch attacks from that deep-lying pocket, combining his capacity to muscle opponents off the ball with the technical quality to shift it onto an open man.
For that kind of transition though, other aspects of Loftus-Cheek’s game still require improvement. He was dispossessed five times by Belgium – for Dembele to do that at the base of Tottenham’s midfield would be sacrilege. Likewise, his passing accuracy was just 78%; Dembele’s in the Premier League last season was 92%, and for Belgium on Thursday night it was 99%. Although that’s no doubt influenced by the obligation for Loftus-Cheek to play riskier passes in a more offensive role, the difference remains distinctly noticeable.
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So, what do you see as Loftus-Cheek’s ultimate position? Should he continued to be used as a powerful and dynamic no.8, or would moving him into a deeper role truly see him thrive in the years to come? Let us know by voting below…