Ruben Loftus-Cheek made a persuasive argument this week to be included in Chelsea’s starting line-up at Burnley on Sunday.
The reality is, though, the England midfielder has more work to do to convince Maurizio Sarri he is ready for an extended run in the Premier League. A hat-trick in the Europa League victory over BATE Borisov confirmed the potential of the 22-year-old, who enjoyed a successful season-long loan spell at Chelsea’s fellow London club Crystal Palace last term.
His performances last season were enough to win him a place in Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad, but back at club level, Loftus-Cheek has found himself on the fringes of Sarri’s first team and in no doubt the Blues head coach does not yet believe he is ready to slot into the Italian’s system.
Ever since Sarri arrived at Chelsea in July, he has emphasised the need for his players to understand the defensive requirements of his possession-based game.
The coach insisted this would take time, although he clearly believes some members of his squad are adapting quicker than others. Mateo Kovacic has slotted straight in following his loan move from Real Madrid while Ross Barkley has won Sarri’s trust, growing in confidence as the season has progressed and moving ahead of Loftus-Cheek for both club and country.
When Southgate announced his squad for the most recent international break, Barkley was included while Loftus-Cheek, at that point restricted to just one starting appearance this season, found himself left out, prompting suggestions he would be well-advised to seek a loan move away in January to maintain the momentum of his young career.
A foot injury has not helped the player, who has come through the ranks at Chelsea after joining the club at the age of eight.
As a home-grown player, Loftus-Cheek has the backing of Blues supporters while further afield, his situation this season has contributed to the debate about the limited opportunities available to young English players at leading clubs in the Premier League.
But having committed himself to trying to break through at Chelsea, Loftus-Cheek knows he faces a battle to win Sarri over. “He is asking me to improve defensively and positionally,” said Sarri. “We are working on it every day in training and he is very demanding with the team.
He is so demanding on shape, but also wants you to play freely as well, which is why we can play such free-flowing football.
It is really good work.” Sarri declared himself satisfied with Loftus-Cheek’s early progress as he assessed the player’s first professional hat-trick, that came on the back of a display built on the powerful running he showed for Palace and England last season. But he also delivered a clear message that the player must get better.
Loftus-Cheek’s willingness to listen, learn and put in the hard yards on the training ground will determine whether he remains a member of Sarri’s back-up group of players, restricted to occasional starts in the Europa League and domestic cup competitions or a key component in a side challenging for the Premier League title.