A timely reminder perhaps, but in reality Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s Europa League hat-trick will have told Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri few things he didn’t already know.
Missing the injured Eden Hazard and a continued absence of a world class striker on their roster, Chelsea might have wondered where last night’s goals against Belarusian outfit BATE Borisov would come from, considering Loftus-Cheek’s 25 games on loan at Crystal Palace last season only yielding 2 goals. Playing in an advanced position enabled the 22-year old a rare luxury of a start in the Chelsea blue, although a tendency for wastefulness in the final third, without which might have garnered the midfielder further goals, will have left Sarri pleased but hardly purring over his overall performance.
Therein lies the problem. Chelsea can only play the team placed before them but BATE Borisov are not a European heavyweight of today or yesteryear, and lack the stubborn tenacity previously displayed in the competition at Stamford Bridge by Hungarians, Vidi. Loftus-Cheek can only take the chances afforded him and in some respects did, although confirmation of certain aspects of his play will have reinforced Sarri’s reasoning for limiting the player’s Premier League game time during the current 2018/19 season.
It can be argued that only by being granted meaningful time on the pitch can a player sharpen his readiness for the bigger games and remove rustiness associated with relative inactivity. I believe in the case of Loftus-Cheek it is more a case of ability and being able to be accommodated within Sarri’s system, rather than using time on the pitch to improve fitness. The Premier League of today requires, especially when a foreign coach is appointed, players to be game ready in all aspects of tactical acumen that correlate to the demands of the manager. Instead of immediately throwing in Loftus-Cheek at the coalface, Sarri took the tried and tested path of picking Jorginho, a player effectively brought with him from Napoli to Chelsea, alongside a world class practitioner N’Golo Kante and a midfielder with considerable experience gained at previous club Everton, Ross Barkley, to complement Madrid loanee, Croat Mateo Kovacic. This leaves little room for even Cesc Fabregas, who would also be considered ahead of Loftus-Cheek in the pecking order and one of Chelsea’s most pointless signings, the former Leicester City player Danny Drinkwater.
There is little doubting Loftus-Cheek’s ability but aside from run outs in the Carabao Cup and nascent stages of the Europa League it is difficult, notwithstanding last night’s exploits, to see the player establishing himself as a regular in the Chelsea engine-room. It will be of little consolation to Loftus-Cheek but perhaps he should be glad to be part of Chelsea’s squad, rather than being one of the 40 players out on loan from Stamford Bridge. One does though suspect that had he not opted to stay rather than once more being farmed out to a Crystal Palace or Watford, there would have been few objections from Sarri. The pressure on Premier League managers being what it is, sharpens minds but also hinders the progress of young English talent like Loftus-Cheek, who occupy unfortunate territory of having little chance to improve at a parent club so intent on using a revolving door process of managerial hiring and firing. With each turn it brings a new head coach needing instant results, who picks players most likely to achieve them.
Is Ruben Loftus-Cheek good enough to spend the next 8-10 years in Chelsea’s midfield? At this stage, probably not. How though, other than through training sessions, can he become so? Game time. How can he get that if each new Chelsea manager understandably acquires players able to hit the ground running to work within their own modus operandi? In such circumstances only because of injuries and game time in less important fixtures will the player receive minutes on the pitch, pressurizing performances that can provoke mistakes from trying too hard during such limited opportunities. Such an outcome only serves to give a skewed impression of what the player is indeed capable of.
Maurizio Sarri appears to be an honorable, personable coach without a hint of pretension. Will he though make the decisions that best suit his system and Chelsea Football Club? Absolutely. There will therefore be few favours afforded Loftus-Cheek, Drinkwater or any other player not immediately obvious candidates for the Italian’s style of play.
Football is purely a results business, not a popularity contest, one which in the end Loftus-Cheek is unlikely to win. Last night’s hat-trick proves very little, other than that the player has now truly reached Chelsea’s glass ceiling.