A player who was once touted as one of the next best English midfielders, Ruben Loftus-Cheek has had awful luck with injuries in the first few years of his career. Despite a largely positive spell at Crystal Palace in 2017/18 and a promising breakthrough at Chelsea in 2018/19, the 24-year-old still has never managed more than 24 Premier League appearances in a season.
Now on loan at Fulham, Loftus-Cheek has the chance to bulk his own resume by impressing for the Whites. Frank Lampard has repeatedly stated that he has a future at Chelsea, and despite frustration from both Fulham and Chelsea supporters this season, Scott Parker has made it clear that he firmly believes Loftus-Cheek is getting closer to finding his best form and fulfilling his potential.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek has historically played as the most advanced player in a midfield three, though he is very capable of playing a bit deeper. Whether he is deployed in the middle or out wide, he has a serious knack for finding pockets of space — the golden ticket to threatening one’s opponent.
The 24-year-old has always received rave reviews for being a supremely intelligent footballer. He always recognizes cues to make himself available for teammates, and is constantly on the move in search of space. When the ball comes to him, he looks to play quick combinations with nearby teammates, often with one-twos or neat flicks.
This combination play is enabled by his impeccable first touch and close control, skills that are special assets for a player of his size. He uses his body well to fend defenders off in tight spaces. He is equally as effective at using his body defensively, as he is capable of winning his fair share of duels.
In the first and second phases of play, his high positional awareness enables him to feel the opposition’s press, and his strength and speed allow him to carry the ball into the next phase of attack (below). In this aspect of his game, it is difficult not to compare him to Yaya Touré, who was known for his long runs from deep in his own half. However, when Loftus-Cheek doesn’t have the space, he has no problem giving up the ball and moving into space.
Loftus-Cheek’s best qualities come into play when the ball approaches the final third. He is always eager to find pockets in half spaces in order to create danger. He makes acute movements towards and then away from the ball in order to create windows of space, making himself available in areas where he poses the biggest threat.
At Chelsea in 2018/19, he combined very well with Eden Hazard, who drew defenders to him before finding Loftus-Cheek in between the lines or in behind (below). This was largely due to the midfielder’s ability to anticipate and time his runs almost perfectly. These diagonal runs in behind repeatedly proved lethal, as the defenders were always facing the wrong way at the time of the entry pass. He showed a real eye for goal too, notably with late runs into the box.
Despite the goal-creating threat he provides, Fulham fans have moaned about his inability to make a genuine impact this season. He doesn’t look to assert himself as often as he could, potentially due to a lack of confidence. Despite getting himself in good positions, he hasn’t always shown consistent quality, particularly with his end product.
Role at Fulham
Despite his slow start to the season, Ruben Loftus-Cheek has drastically improved his performances of late, which have directly coincided with Fulham’s recent upturn in form. By pairing him with Ademola Lookman just behind the striker, Scott Parker has been able to create a solid defensive foundation in his 3-4-2-1, preventing the relegation candidates from being so porous at the back. As Fulham usually have less possession than their opponents, Loftus-Cheek’s positional awareness is pivotal in cutting passing lanes and in providing an outlet in transition.
When Fulham do have the ball, he works tirelessly to find space in half-spaces and out wide to get on the ball. From these positions, he can combine with Cavaleiro/Mitrovic inside (below), or with Decordova-Reid/Tete out wide. His forward-thinking has helped Fulham become a much more dangerous side as of late.
He and Ademola Lookman have frequently shown good chemistry as they usually run the break together. When Lookman beats his man on the wing, Loftus-Cheek is almost always in space, ready for the ball to be played across or pulled back.
Loftus-Cheek’s versatility makes him a threat on both ends on the pitch, as his new manager has quickly realized. As he and Fulham grow in confidence in the second half of the season, there is no doubt that Frank Lampard will be checking in on his progress. The Chelsea boss has tinkered with multiple systems this term, and Loftus-Cheek may very well prove to be an answer when he returns to Chelsea next season.