It started at Stamford Bridge last Saturday, where Ruben Loftus-Cheek did not. For the fourth time in seven Premier League games, the midfielder did not even make Chelsea’s bench as they hosted Liverpool.
Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante promptly rubbed salt in the open wound. That triptych was excellent, harrying and hassling, probing and passing, setting the sort of standard that Maurizio Sarri demands from an area so crucial to his system.
By Thursday, Loftus-Cheek must have been recounting his steps, trying to figure out whether he had walked under a ladder while smashing a handful of mirrors. The news that he had been omitted from Gareth Southgate’s England squad was compounded by a miserable Europa League showing against Vidi FC.
“He’s a great player from the technical point of view, and from the physical point of view,” Sarri noted after that game, Loftus-Cheek having been substituted early in his first start of the season. “But he has to improve from a tactical point of view. I want more from the tactical point of view because we conceded three or four counter-attacks to the opponent. We have to do better, especially in this case with the midfielders.”
Two out of three might not have been all that bad for Meatloaf, but Sarri is not quite as forgiving when it comes to coaching. He has the most impressive midfield options of any Premier League side by far, so has no need to lower the bar. Instead, the onus is on these players to clear it.
Loftus-Cheek is failing at that task more than anyone else – and his decision not to speak to the press after the Vidi victory implies that the penny has dropped. There is sympathy for a player who impressed both for Crystal Palace last season and at this summer’s World Cup, but the 22-year-old is now drowning in Chelsea’s deep midfield talent pool.
Southgate’s explanation for dropping a player so important to England’s semi-final run was simple: “Ruben has been missing.” And he was again nowhere to be seen at Southampton, where Chelsea temporarily headed to the top of the Premier League table once more.
It will have done Loftus-Cheek no favours to see one of his international replacements make such an impact at St Mary’s on Sunday. By Sarri’s own admission, Ross Barkley “needed to improve” when he was first appointed. A first Chelsea goal and assist is proof that the hard work is at least starting to pay off.
Loftus-Cheek must use Barkley as his inspiration. He was excellent going forward and in possession against Southampton, but they have always been his strengths. It is in the defensive aspect that he has improved, and that was evident with Chelsea’s opener. It was a goal of the 24-year-old’s creation, pressing and tackling Pierre-Emile Højbjerg deep in the opposition half before laying the ball into Eden Hazard’s path.
If anything, Loftus-Cheek had a headstart on Barkley this summer. While the former was playing regular football at both club and international level, things had not quite gone to plan for the latter. Barkley made two Premier League appearances for Chelsea last season: 3-0 defeats to both Bournemouth and Newcastle.
Yet while Loftus-Cheek seems to have rested on his laurels, Barkley has put in the hard miles to improve, to better himself, to respond to what his manager is asking of him. No-one expected Loftus-Cheek to keep the pace with Jorginho, Kovacic and Kante, nor perhaps even Cesc Fabregas when the Spaniard is in the picture. But to be lapped so convincingly by Barkley is embarrassing. Heading to Crystal Palace on loan was two or three steps forward, but this season has been five or six strides back.
Perhaps being dropped by England is the timely wake-up call Loftus-Cheek needed. He now has an international break, time away from the spotlight to concentrate and work on his deficiencies, having not even been selected for the Under-21 side. After a terrible week, it is time to knuckle down.