The Chelsea conundrum: Ruben Loftus-Cheek

After Ruben Loftus-Cheek inspired England U21s to victory over Denmark last week an old question raised its head: why can’t he get in the Chelsea team?

The 21-year-old has made just 19 appearances for the Blues since making his debut in 2014; Antonio Conte has handed him just four starts this year.

One of those was an impressive performance in the win over Brentford in the FA Cup in January that had fans raving about his ability.

He’s always been very highly-rated at the club yet two world-class managers, Conte and Jose Mourinho before him, have failed to trust him in the first team picture. Why?

An obvious answer is the quality in the Chelsea squad at present, especially in the centre of midfieldl; N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are the first choice and leading the Blues to the title while Cesc Fabregas, a World Cup-winning midfielder, is the backup option. That’s an outstanding trio; it’d keep better players than Loftus-Cheek out.

There’s also the issue of there not being a pathway through to the first team at Chelsea. Over the years they’ve preferred to send their youngsters to the likes of Vitesse Arnhem than give them chances at Stamford Bridge.

Yet, Antonio Conte’s has been confident enough to hand Nathaniel Chalobah 13 appearances this season. It shows the Italian has faith in youth if they’re good enough.

So is Loftus-Cheek actually the problem? There’s evidence to suggest that is the case.

His lack of a defined position and role is certainly an issue. At this moment in time, nobody – including Loftus-Cheek himself – is certain of his best position. Is he a central midfielder, a number ten or a striker?

He was used as the latter in pre-season and that suggests there’s a feeling it is up front where his future lies, yet still nobody is certain.

Perhaps, as well, Loftus-Cheek simply isn’t good enough. He’s good for the odd impressive display but regular, quality performances might be beyond him. His current manager seems to think so.

Questions must also be raised over the player’s mentality. It is hard for a young player to leave a big club like Chelsea but the fact is a move away would make perfect sense.

‘There’s no way you’d let this fella go out of the door. I wouldn’t if I was Chelsea, you’ve got to keep him as a Chelsea player.

‘Like Ake, he went to Bournemouth, he’s grown in esteem, certainly Bournemouth have missed him since he’s come back. He needs to play every week at this point.’

 Stuart Pearce

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A loan move to a club at the top of the Championship or lower reaches of the Premier League would allow him to demonstrate his skills and pick up vital experience.

It worked out for Nathan Ake this season. His spell at Bournemouth was a roaring success and he now has a role to play in the first team picture at Stamford Bridge. Loftus-Cheek should have taken note.

Yet, he has never sought a loan deal. Not even a short spell away to get playing time and catch the manager’s eye with his performances. That’s a major concern.

It suggests that not only is his heart not really in it but he’s more than happy to stick around on the fringes at Chelsea and pick up his £50,000-a-week plus wages rather than progress.

That is not a strategy that will bring him success in his career, certainly not under Conte, who demands utmost effort and desire from all of his players.

The question for him now is whether he sticks with the current situation or pushes for more. The latter choice would likely give his Chelsea career a much-needed shot in the arm.