The Impact of Loftus-Cheek's Imminent Return
When Chelsea played New England Revolution in America in a friendly for Say No To Anti-Semitism last May, it was supposed to be a completely stress-free game, one in which the game itself paled in comparison to the fact that they were even playing, showing support to the Jewish community. Maurizio Sarri, the manager at the time, did not want to play his crucial players, as it was a friendly in the middle of a jam-packed season and the cause was far more important than the score.
However, he received an order from owner Roman Abramovich to play his best team, and so he did. The Blues scored 3 in a comfortable, routine 3-0 win, but the match, and sadly the cause as well, was marred by the news that Ruben Loftus-Cheek had ruptured his Achilles and would be out for an indefinite period.
Chelsea were in the hunt for top 4 and the Europa League, so this was an unwelcome headline for the Chelsea supporters and Sarri, as Loftus-Cheek was establishing himself as a key member of the first team. In the end, Chelsea achieved both their goals without him, but his career growth was stunted.
At first, he would be out for 3 months, until shortly after the season began. Then, he suffered a setback and would be out until November. Then it became the New Year, but no later. But we are now in February, with nearly 2/3 of the season gone, and Loftus-Cheek has not made an appearance for Chelsea since. It seemed as if every time he was rumored to be close to a comeback, something, anything, slowed him down and he was no longer ready.
Several weeks ago, he returned to first team training, and has been quietly progressing, staying out of the limelight, but today he took a huge step forward. Loftus-Cheek played 60 minutes for the Chelsea Development Squad in a friendly against Brentford B. Yes, it was only a friendly for the youth team, and no, it does not mean he is in the team for the next game, but Ruben Loftus-Cheek, after 265 days, has played a football game for Chelsea.
The fact that he could play an hour in a game shows he is very close to his return, a matter of days, not weeks or even months anymore. When the Premier League resumes after the winter break, giving Loftus-Cheek a further 2 weeks to continue working on his recovery, Chelsea face Man United, Spurs, and Bayern Munich in a week and a half. While the United game might come too soon for the 23-year-old, he could well feature in the following games. He is a huge boost provided to a team that looks like it could really use one.
His impact on the team, if he stays fit, will be massive. Manager Frank Lampard's go-to formation this season has been a 4-2-3-1, with 2 of N'Golo Kante, Jorginho, and Mateo Kovacic at the base of midfield, and Mason Mount in the No. 10 position. After a fantastic early start, Mount's form and performance has faded, and so his impact on the team has faded as well. The lack of creativity from midfield, someone to break the lines and provide a goalscoring threat, has been a major issue this season, along with poor finishing from crosses or other chances created resulting in an inability to kill games off. Loftus-Cheek could fix both.
He is a No. 10 by trade, and his specialty is running at defenders from deep and shooting to goal. He is also an excellent passer, and his late arriving runs into the box could be perfect for right foot of Reece James, who has recently been swinging in some incredible balls which haven't been converted, as Lampard himself has attested to.
Lampard will likely be the first to admit that he sees a lot of himself in the Englishman, and he should, because his game is very similar to his manager's, the man who is Chelsea's record scorer. Under Lampard, he will only get better, and he will learn a lot from the man he grew up looking up to. Having joined the club at the age of 8, he is Chelsea through and through, and forms a part of Chelsea's young, promising English core.
While Chelsea surprisingly made no signings in the January transfer window, the impending return of Loftus-Cheek must feel like a new signing to Lampard. Like any new singing, he will need a little time to be at his best, but once he is, he will provide a welcome addition to the team.
He had, and undoubtedly still has, all the attributes needed to succeed at Stamford Bridge, and the more he plays, the more this horror injury will be a thing of the past, something he will be able to look at and say, this may have pushed me down, but I only came back stronger.
It is this fighting mentality that separates the good from the great, and the warrior that is Loftus-Cheek has been fighting for about 9 months. Finally, he is on the brink of his return, and his chance is coming. The only question that remains is, what will he do about it?