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Ruben Loftus-Cheek is 6ft 3in tall, and has a frame packed with muscle. He has impeccable control in tight areas, and he can shift through the gears when the space opens up. He can beat you in a fight and a race, and he can dribble past you if he wants. How, then, do you go about stopping him when he is in full flow?
It is a question that would have featured high in the minds of the Brentford midfielders on Saturday, when Loftus-Cheek produced another performance that showed he could yet have a bright future at Chelsea. Physically dominant and technically sharp, Loftus-Cheek controlled the midfield and absorbed the Brentford pressure until the 70th minute, when the home side wisely decided the time had come to bypass him and play long balls instead.
It hardly needs saying that it has not always been this way for Loftus-Cheek, now 25, but a change of role under Thomas Tuchel appears to have given a new lease of life to the player who was once regarded as the standout graduate of the Chelsea academy.
Loftus-Cheek has spent his adult career in a variety of positions, from central midfield to attacking midfield to winger and even occasionally to striker. Injuries have not helped but he has never been able to make one of those his own, and he was generally disappointing on loan at Fulham last season.
Could it be that this new role, sitting in front of the defence, is the one to which he is best suited? He certainly has the attributes to play there, as he has shown in his few appearances this season. Time and time again, Loftus-Cheek received the ball under pressure against Brentford and then spun clear, using that rare combination of size and balance to cruise past his opponents.
When Brentford’s players did get close enough to make a challenge, Loftus-Cheek simply shoved them aside. An awkward moment for Brentford’s Christian Norgaard came shortly after half-time, when he attempted to slow one of Loftus-Cheek’s off-the-ball runs. Next thing he knew, he had been thrown to the turf with disdain. Loftus-Cheek even shot him a scolding look as he lay sprawled on the grass, as if to warn Norgaard not to try such a thing again.
“It is not somewhere I have played a lot in my career,” said Loftus-Cheek of his new position. “But it is where I played in my younger days, so it is not too foreign to me. When they pressed I had to use my body and I think I am quite good at that. Sometimes I can beat the press and it is a big advantage for the team.
“It is a position where you have to be safe and dictate the play. It is hard sometimes as I wanted to run with it a lot more, but I needed to be disciplined in this role and pick my three or four times to run forward.”
No player regained possession more times than Loftus-Cheek, who won the ball back on 13 occasions. He also had the most touches of any player on the pitch, and won the most fouls. He may not have sliced open the Brentford defence with a killer pass, but he regularly stormed through the heart of the pitch with the ball.
This physical power makes Loftus-Cheek a different option in that midfield position to Jorginho, his main rival for a starting role at the base of the central three. The Englishman has started the last two league games ahead of Jorginho, and surely deserves to do so again in the upcoming matches against Malmo and Norwich City.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek's ball recoveries against Brentford
A measure of Loftus-Cheek’s recent impact is that Chelsea fans have hardly seen Saul Niguez, their high-profile loan signing from Atletico Madrid. Few would have expected Loftus-Cheek to have overtaken the Spaniard in the pecking order, especially in a more defensive position, but Tuchel has never been afraid to take unexpected decisions.
For Loftus-Cheek, the key will be consistency. He has shown these glimpses before in a Chelsea shirt but then faded, often through injury rather than his own performances. He will know that regular game-time is fundamental to his chances of fulfilling that enormous potential — after all, it was when he played a full season on loan at Crystal Palace that he was rewarded with a place in England’s 2018 World Cup squad.
Loftus-Cheek’s performance and Ben Chilwell’s superb winner were the two highlights of a difficult night for Chelsea, who were forced to defend with desperation against Brentford’s late onslaught. Only the brilliance of their goalkeeper, Edouard Mendy, denied the home side what would have been a deserved point, if not all three.
Loftus-Cheek’s height and physical presence was useful in those moments, but it was his showing in the opening hour which was most encouraging. Perhaps this time, at long last, it could be the start of something special.