In his entire career, Ruben-Loftus Cheek has played 90 minutes in the league for Chelsea just twice. The last of those was on April 16th 2016, when Guus Hiddink’s side lost 3-0 at home to Manchester City. Since then he has made just 13 Premier League appearances for the Blues, totalling a little over three hours’ worth of actual football.
Despite this paucity of opportunities, Loftus-Cheek has shown himself to be a player who makes the most of his opportunities. A successful loan spell at Crystal Palace last year earned a surprise call-up to England’s World Cup squad. He started more games for England in Russia than he has for Chelsea in his entire Premier League career, including the 6-1 demolition of Panama. He hit a hat-trick against BATE in the Europa League on 25th October, then followed that up with a goal off the bench against Burnley three days later.
Despite that red-hot form, this was his first league outing since then, as a substitute or otherwise, and again he seized the chance, linking well with Eden Hazard on the edge of the Fulham box before firing a good, firm finish past Sergio Rico in the 82nd minute to allow Chelsea to breathe as they saw out a derby victory.
It was the first time Chelsea had looked truly incisive since taking a 4th-minute lead through Pedro’s strike. That early lapse aside, it’s true that Fulham had looked a lot more defensively assured in their second game under Claudio Ranieri, sitting back with the two solid, narrow banks of four that had served the Italian so well when he won the league title with Leicester.
Perhaps Sarri had asked his side to keep it tight and see out the victory in the event that they took an early lead, prioritising confidence-building solidity over a balls-to-the-wall statement victory after last weekend’s humbling against Spurs. But this was still the division’s weakest defence going up against its second-best attack; despite having all the territory, Chelsea frequently struggled to find a way through. Southampton, playing away from home, managed more shots on the Fulham goal (19) last week than Chelsea (16) did at Stamford Bridge.
Loftus-Cheek changed that, making himself available for Hazard’s pass on the left wing before moving smartly inside to receive the ball back via Pedro’s first-time pass around the corner. Loftus-Cheek backheeled the ball to Hazard, whose final square ball teed up the midfielder for a first-time finish that hit the net with a pleasing “thwock-dink”. (That noise is the best part of any well-executed goal, and frankly the Englishman should be retained in the side just for making it happen.)
This is not to say that Loftus-Cheek changed the game; he was not instrumental in a three-goal comeback, or the scourge of defenders throughout his 23-minute appearance. It is also worth bearing in mind that Chelsea have perhaps the best central midfield options of any side in the Premier League, Manchester City included.
But it is another small-but-notable piece of what is becoming some very solid evidence for Loftus-Cheek’s inclusion: that he is capable of becoming a player worthy of a regular starting place at one of England’s biggest clubs. The case for him to be given a healthy number of playing minutes need have nothing to do with nationality, and nothing to do with him being a youth product at the club.
Rather, this is a player who has proven he deserves a chance, but who turns 23 next month. At this point, the only way for them to find out the limits of his potential is to give him a starts, and plenty of them – otherwise he might well decide to go and develop himself elsewhere.
Steven Chicken is on Twitter