Once again this summer, the hot topic of conversation at Chelsea – with the exception of Antonio Conte seemingly dumping Diego Costa via text – has been the deployment of their young players. Academy graduates Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake, Dominic Solanke, Tammy Abraham, Izzy Brown and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have all departed the club in some form as more big money signings were made.
This approach has drawn more criticism over the purpose of their youth team. Despite winning five of the last six FA Youth Cups, why aren’t those players providing the backbone of the club’s future?
All of these questions are valid and hold some credence. There can be debate over the merits or demerits of the loaning system, but the one Chelsea player who should unquestionably benefit from a short spell away is Loftus-Cheek.
Those who’ve watched Loftus-Cheek play at underage level for club or country will have been struck by his stature. Elegant, quick, direct and effortlessly powerful, he immediately stood out as a man among boys. There are countless video packages on Chelsea’s YouTube account of him whacking in goals from distance and gliding past defenders at will. Former England manager Glenn Hoddle likened him to Michael Ballack due to his long strides and physicality, and there are definitely similarities in their playing styles.
He made his bow in Jose Mourinho’s ill fated last few months at Stamford Bridge – delivering a promising debut in the Champions League – and caretaker manager Guus Hiddink gave him plenty of opportunities to play when Mourinho left West London. Minutes were scarce under Conte last season though, largely restricted to cup competitions. When Loftus-Cheek did make his way onto the field, he was played in a more advanced position as a second striker or a wide forward.
That unfamiliarity was characterised in his performances. He was hesitant, rushed and understandably overeager to impress. The prime example was his cameo against Stoke City in March, when he fluffed his lines in front of goal on a couple of occasions when a pass was the better option. Fortunately for him, the vital winner came from the reliable source of Gary Cahill.
Loftus-Cheek needs consistent starting time, so a loan is the right move for him at this point. The 21 year-old’s destination is Crystal Palace, with newly installed coach Frank de Boer at the helm. Chairman Steve Parish has intimated that he wants to alter the model at Palace, moving away from big money signings and focussing on young talent. de Boer certainly did that at Ajax, where he nurtured the development of Toby Alderweirald, Daley Blind and Christian Eriksen when he was in charge of the Amsterdam club’s famed academy. He then led the first team to three successive Eredivisie titles, relying on those same names. De Boer’s brief tenure at Internazionale was particularly turbulent, but he should be given time to imprint his vision by Parish, all of which augurs well for Loftus-Cheek.
The most interesting titbit of information gathered from Palace’s preseason – apart from the news that de Boer had sleeping pods installed at their training ground for players to nap in between double sessions – is the early impact made by Loftus-Cheek, particularly in the 1-1 draw with Schalke at the weekend. It’s futile to read too much into friendly games, but he left some supporters at Selhurst Park giddy with excitement.
De Boer was certainly impressed and noted as much in his post-match press conference. “He’s a very young lad, he can improve, he learn a lot still. I think he has the quality (to play) the position he played today as a sitting midfielder, but also as a more offensive midfielder.”
Few know Conte’s true intention or plan for Loftus-Cheek in the long-term, but should the Italian see a path into the first team, he will be hoping Loftus-Cheek’s loan proves more productive than some of Chelsea’s other youth team prospects have found stints at fellow Premier League sides in the past. Most notably, Josh McEachran – once glowingly praised by Carlo Ancelotti – spent a few months at Swansea City under Brendan Rodgers, but was sparingly utilised. Now 24, he finds himself at Brentford in the Championship.
Even if his future lies away from Stamford Bridge, it’s the right time for Loftus-Cheek to spread his wings and test himself. A footballers career is relatively short in the grand scheme of things, so he must avail of every opportunity he can.