a Quick quiz question: Can you name each of the six players who played in midfield England In the 2018 World Cup? Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, with their goals, probably immediately come to mind. Then there was the penalty kick that Eric Dier converted in the penalty shootout against Colombia which Jordan Henderson did not. These are the easy (ish) fours, but they’re a special prize for anyone who remembers Fabian Delph’s two matches against Belgium or the fact that when Alli was injured against Tunisia, he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who retained his spot in the group matches. Against Panama and Belgium and then started the match for third place as well.
Loftus-Cheek was destined to live on the fringes of English football consciousness. His talent was obvious, a lusty grace encased in a muscular 6-foot-3-inch frame but was denied court time by the giant clubs’ habit of hoarding players. It doesn’t matter that when he made his England debut, just eight months before the last World Cup, he impressed during his loan spell at Crystal Palace.
Then came the injuries. Repeated back problems, Achilles’ tear in a charity match against the New England Revolution, a vague, and wholly non-medical feeling, that he may be beyond his talents, and that there is some irreconcilable disconnect between his technical ability, size and athleticism. His shorthand has shifted from young talent deserving more chances to the sadly great potential being undermined by injury. It’s surprising to realize that he’s still only 26 years old.
Loftus-Cheek has not played for England since a friendly against the United States in November 2018. Three of his seven appearances for England came in the last World Cup, but, with another World Cup looming, it looked like then. Saturday 1-1 draw between Chelsea and Manchester United is that he might have another World Cup role to play.
It wasn’t an easy game to thrive in. As Fred prepared to turn up for Jadon Sancho six minutes into the second half of the tie at Stamford Bridge, the Brazilian received lengthy instructions from Eric Ten Hag, who explained his role using a magnetic tactics board.
Looking over the shoulder of Tin Hag from the press box at Stamford Bridge, the most striking aspect was the number of counters there, and how small the stadium was. Which, in fairness, was pretty much what the game felt like for extended periods. It seems that there are a lot of players. There were periods in both halves when I thought stadiums might need to be bigger, and to expect anyone to find space in such a crowded environment was absurd.
Was this something else to add to the set of things to change about the game? That even in the age of perfect playing surfaces and spontaneous first touches, the human framework has changed to the point that the dimensions that the Victorians set up for the game need to be altered? But then another thought emerged, that we were spoiled a bit by the constant passing of Manchester City and the relentless pressure on Liverpool, and the matches are supposed to look amongst the league’s elite. It is not meant to be stretched; There is not supposed to be space. Instead, they are meant to be tight and tense, defined by an arena generated by a flash of attacking brilliance or a momentary interruption of defensive focus.
This was a game that was basically about midfield. In the beginning, United dominated, with an additional player in the middle, – Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes were able to work their way around Jorginho and Loftus-Cheek. Graham Potter corrected that nine minutes before halftime, pulling Mark Kokurila for Mateo Kovacic and moving into the Diamond midfield. Suddenly it was Chelsea Who had the man-in-the-middle advantage and moved the action scene 20 yards into the United goal.
So Ten Hag had to take action, which he did by taking Sancho in place of Fred and moving Fernandez to the left. Then the midfield was evenly matched and the game essentially became a battle of the playing group. Casemiro excelled, and so did Loftus-Cheek.
Manipulating their star players in the lead-up to the World Cup, as if plans laid out over the years had to be untied for the sake of the flavor of the month, is an unfortunate aspect of football journalism, but central midfield is an area where England have a problem. With Calvin Phillips injured and Henderson’s form uncertain, who will Declan Rice be involved with? Judd Bellingham is the man with the ball, he played well in matches against Italy, Germany and Scored two goals in Borussia Dortmund’s 5-0 win over Stuttgart Saturday, but he could be a player a bit more up front than Gareth Southgate who would transition perfectly into the role. There is a vacancy there, even if only as a support.
Amid the hype, Loftus-Cheek scored the highest passing accuracy of any Chelsea midfielder on Saturday. No Chelsea player has had more shots or interceptions than him and no player on the field has fouled more than him. He recovers the ball again, is difficult to send off and is an offensive threat in open play and from set pieces. Southgate knows him and obviously rated him once.
Perhaps, four years later, after all the pain and frustration, Loftus-Cheek’s time is about to turn again.