Ruben Loftus-Cheek shines to give Southgate a timely reminder

A quick quiz question: Can you name each of the six players who played midfield for England at the 2018 World Cup? Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, with their goals, maybe they immediately come to mind. Then there was the penalty that Eric Dier converted on penalties against Colombia and what Jordan Henderson did not do. These are the easy four (ish), but a special bonus prize for those who remembered Fabian Delph’s two appearances against Belgium or the fact that when Alli got injured against Tunisia he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who has kept his place for group matches against Panama and Belgium and then also started the play-off for third place.

Related: Classy Casemiro finally brings balance to Manchester United midfield | Jonathan Liew

It was Loftus-Cheek’s fate to exist on the periphery of the English football consciousness. His talent was evident, menacing grace packed into a muscular 6ft 3in frame but negated casting time by superclubs’ habit of stocking up on players. It is no small time that when he made his England debut, just eight months before the last World Cup, he impressed during a loan spell at Crystal Palace.

And then came the wounds; repeated back problems, an Achilles break in a charity match against the New England Revolution, a vague, wholly unmedical feeling that he may be too big for his talents, that there was an irreconcilable disconnect between his abilities techniques and his size and athleticism. The abbreviated tag of him has gone from a young talent who deserves more chances to great potential unfortunately undermined by an injury. It’s kind of a surprise to realize that he’s still only 26 years old.

Loftus-Cheek has not played for England since the friendly against the United States in November 2018. Three of his seven England appearances made it to the last World Cup but, as another World Cup approaches, the sense after Saturday’s 1-1 draw between Chelsea and Chelsea Manchester United is that it could have another role in the World Cup to play.

It wasn’t an easy game to thrive in. As Fred prepared to take over from Jadon Sancho six minutes into the second half of the draw at Stamford Bridge, the Brazilian received lengthy instructions from Erik ten Hag, who explained his role using a magnetic board.

Peering over Ten Hag’s shoulder from the Stamford Bridge press box, the most surprising aspect was the number of countermeasures present, how small the pitch was. Which, in all honesty, was pretty much how the game felt for long periods. There seemed to be a lot of players; there have been times in both halves where the idea came that maybe the fields should be bigger, that to expect someone to find space in such a congested environment was absurd.

Was that something else to add to the litany of things about the game that should be changed? That, even in this era of perfect playing surfaces and automatic first touches, has human structure changed to such an extent that the dimensions set by the Victorians themselves for the game must change? But then another thought arose, which is that we have been a little spoiled by the relentless demise of Manchester City and the merciless pressing of Liverpool, and this is what games should look like among the league’s elite. They are not meant to be stretched; there should be no space. Rather, they should be tight and tense, decided by a yardstick generated by a glimmer of offensive brilliance or a momentary dip in defensive focus.

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This was basically a game about midfielders. In the beginning, United dominated, with an extra man in the center: Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes able to get around Jorginho and Loftus-Cheek. Graham Potter restored him nine minutes before half-time, retiring Marc Cucurella for Mateo Kovacic and switching to a diamond-shaped midfield. Suddenly it was Chelsea who had the advantage of the man in the middle and the theater of action moved 20 yards towards United’s goal.

So Ten Hag had to act, which he did by removing Sancho for Fred and moving Fernandes to the left. The midfielders were therefore evenly matched and the match essentially became a set-play battle. Casemiro excelled, but so did Loftus-Cheek.

Exclaiming players in shape ahead of the World Cup, as if the plans drawn up over the years have to be torn up for the flavor of the month, is one of the most unfortunate aspects of football journalism, but the center of midfield is an area where England has a problem. With Kalvin Phillips injured and Henderson’s form uncertain, who will he team up with Declan Rice? Jude Bellingham is the man in possession, played well in matches against Italy and Germany and scored two goals in Borussia Dortmund’s 5-0 demolition v Stuttgart on Saturday, but may be a slightly more advanced player than Gareth Southgate would ideally field in the role. There is a vacancy there, even if only as a reserve.

Amid the confusion, Loftus-Cheek had the highest passing accuracy of any Chelsea midfielder on Saturday. No Chelsea player has made more shots or more interceptions than him and no one on the pitch has been fouled more than him. He regains the ball, is very difficult to expropriate and offers an offensive threat both in open play and on set pieces. Southgate knows him and clearly once valued him.

Perhaps, four years later, after all the pain and frustration, Loftus-Cheek’s time is about to return.

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