Ruben Loftus-Cheek has shown flashes of his huge potential in Russia
Friday 6 July 2018 11:18, UK
Ruben Loftus-Cheek has long been seen as one of the most exciting prospects of his generation, but fulfilling his talent has not been easy. The World Cup midfielder's old coaches and team-mates tell Sky Sports how he overcame growth issues and a lack of opportunity to shine.
There aren't many players who can find a way past Mousa Dembele, let alone leave him in a heap on the turf beneath their feet, but then there aren't many players like Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The 22-year-old came into the World Cup with just four England caps to his name, but moments like that barnstorming run against Belgium explain why he is there.
They also explain why he is regarded so highly, not just by Gareth Southgate, who waxes lyrical about his ability, but by everyone who has worked with him on his rise from Chelsea's academy to England's senior side. The imposing yet elegant midfielder could make his fourth appearance of the World Cup against Sweden, but it has been a long road to get this far.
"There are a lot of people involved in his development who will be watching him with a lot of pride," Adi Viveash tells Sky Sports. Viveash, now assistant manager at Coventry City, spent nine years as a coach in Chelsea's academy, helping to mould Loftus-Cheek into the player he is today and winning two FA Youth Cups and two UEFA Youth Leagues along the way.
Loftus-Cheek, a Chelsea player since the age of eight, was there for all of it. "All the traits you see now, the ability to carry the ball at speed, the calmness in possession, the ability to find passes and use space, they were all evident when he was a boy," says Viveash, who first worked with Loftus-Cheek in Chelsea's U14s.
The temptation with a player of Loftus-Cheek's stature - he now stands at 6ft 4ins and weighs 14 stone - can be to focus on his physical attributes, but he has always stood out just as much for his technical qualities. "He has always been a wonderfully skilful player for such a big boy," says Viveash. "You would like to bottle that ability, really."
Loftus-Cheek played in the same Chelsea youth teams as Dominic Solanke, Andreas Christensen and Tammy Abraham, among others, but none caused as much as excitement as he did. "Every other big club wanted him," says Viveash. Even agents vied for his signature, and by the age of 16 he was already tied to a lucrative Chelsea contract.
Loftus-Cheek had to cope with soaring expectations from a young age and consistently trained with the year above, but out on the pitch his ability always shone through. Viveash remembers one moment in particular, during a UEFA Youth League tie with Schalke at Chelsea's training ground in September 2014, which showed him at his most devastatingly effective.
With the scores level at 1-1, Loftus-Cheek stole possession from a young Leroy Sane in Chelsea's box before carrying the ball through a crowd of white-shirted Schalke players and calmly stroking it on to the overlapping Charly Musonda, who crossed for Solanke to finish.
"It was an unbelievable goal," says Viveash with a chuckle. "Ruben later did the same thing in an U23 game against Everton and then did it again in the first team against West Brom." That burst against Dembele's Belgium in Kaliningrad was just another example. With such speed and power and impeccable close control, he can be difficult to stop.
Loftus-Cheek makes it all look effortless at times, but his early years at Chelsea threw up major obstacles, too. At the age of around 14, when he first came under Viveash's tutelage, he began a growth spurt, shooting up rapidly and gaining muscle at a similar rate. It was an immense strain on his body - particularly his back - and made him susceptible to injury and exhaustion.
Chelsea had no option but to lighten his workload considerably. "It was just accepted that he was going to have to miss quite a lot of his development programme," says Viveash. "The worry at that age is that they can become a little bit distant and disheartened. Ruben loved football, so taking it away from him was a challenge, but he had to learn how to use his body."
Viveash credits Jo Clubb, a sports scientist who now works with the Buffalo Bills in the NFL, for devising the specialist training programmes Loftus-Cheek followed during that period, but when he was not omitted from games altogether, he had to get used to early substitutions. The challenges were mental as well as physical.
"When he started playing against men in the U23s when he was still only 17, he would usually be taken off at around the 60-minute mark, which is when young players with his kind of frame can start to look a bit languid," says Viveash. "It created doubts in his head and caused him frustration. I think it's fair to say that some of the Chelsea hierarchy were concerned about whether he was going to get through that period."
Southgate alluded to the same issues when Loftus-Cheek was withdrawn 35 minutes into England's friendly against Brazil in November, but he would never have made it that far had Chelsea's academy staff not devoted so much attention to building up his endurance back in his teenage years.
"It was really about getting him to train regularly on bigger areas and gradually keeping him on the pitch longer in matches," says Viveash. "What was most important for him psychologically was to get him over that 60-minute threshold so he felt confident. It took a while and there were times when he was down about it, but we got him to understand the game a little more. I was extremely proud of how he came through it."
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All the while, Loftus-Cheek had been taking his first steps into the international game. He first represented England at U16 level, where he came to work with Noel Blake, a former Birmingham, Portsmouth and Leeds defender who spent seven years as an England youth coach between 2007 and 2014.
"He was a very, very good footballer who came into the group a year young," Blake tells Sky Sports.
"His ability to ghost past people… it was like poetry in motion. People look at him and think he's about strength and power, but it's not that. Even then, his technical ability was outstanding. I like his physical attributes and he knew how to use them, but he had special ability."
England worked closely with Chelsea in order to ensure they did not overwork Loftus-Cheek as his body adapted to his physical development. "If we had tournaments where he was selected, for example, we would play him in game one, then he would miss game two and we would put him back in for game three," says Blake.
Loftus-Cheek's frustration was as clear to Blake as it was to Viveash, but so too was his humility and eagerness to learn. "Like a lot of the lads at Chelsea, he was a terrific kid, which spoke volumes for the work they were doing there," says Blake. "He took everything in his stride and he loved talking about the game and studying it.
"I once told him he reminded me of Fernando Redondo, the Argentinian player who played for Real Madrid, just because of his stature, how graceful he was in possession, and his range of passing. The next time I saw him, he had gone away, looked him up and watched videos of him. That's the kind of guy he is. He loves the game and he's intelligent."
Loftus-Cheek rose through England's youth ranks and impressed at every turn. In 2016, he played a starring role for Southgate's U21s during their triumphant Toulon Tournament campaign, scoring three goals in four appearances and picking up the player of the tournament award. It augured well for his England future. Back at Chelsea, though, things were proving trickier.
Loftus-Cheek began training with Chelsea's first-team regularly during the 2014/15 season under Jose Mourinho, but even for a young player widely regarded as their best academy product since John Terry, playing opportunities proved hard to come by.
Mourinho trumpeted Loftus-Cheek's potential ahead of a Champions League group game against Sporting Lisbon in December 2014, describing it as "academy day" as he vowed to give him his debut, but in the end his eagerly-anticipated first appearance for the club amounted to just seven minutes from the bench.
There were Premier League appearances against Manchester City, Liverpool and West Brom in the second half of that season, with Mourinho insisting Loftus-Cheek would challenge for a starting spot the following year, but that seemed unlikely from the moment he berated the youngster following a post-season friendly against Sydney FC in June 2015.
"Ruben was saying he had a pain in his back but what I was feeling was that he only had this pain when Sydney had the ball," sniped the Chelsea manager. "Ruben has to learn that, at 19, you have to run three times as much as the other guys and you have to play to your limits." Mourinho described the episode as "one step back" in his relationship with the player.
"I think that was a stop-start period for Ruben, I think he's very honest about that," says Viveash. "He was working with one of the best managers ever and that period was a little bit difficult for him. He got some opportunities and Jose was the one who gave him those, you have to say that, but it wasn't the smooth transition he might have wanted."
Mourinho was sacked in December of that season, and while Loftus-Cheek did enjoy more playing chances under interim coach Guus Hiddink, scoring his first senior goals for the club in an FA Cup tie against Scunthorpe and a Premier League meeting with Aston Villa, he found himself on the periphery once again under Antonio Conte.
"In development, the priority is to improve the player, but you've got to remember that first-team managers can't wait," says Viveash. "The pressure is for instant results."
That was little consolation to Loftus-Cheek, who has since described his first two seasons with Chelsea's first team as a "really difficult" period of his career. "It's been so difficult to go from playing every game then get to the seniors and not be given a chance," he said. "It's really difficult mentally. There's only so long you just enjoy training with top players."
Loftus-Cheek needed to play, and, as is the case for so many of the young hopefuls on Chelsea's books, he had to move away from Stamford Bridge to get that opportunity.
"When I first saw him walk through the door, I couldn't get over how big he was," Damien Delaney tells Sky Sports with a chuckle. The veteran centre-back left Crystal Palace for Cork City in June, but not before watching Loftus-Cheek flourish at Selhurst Park during his final season there.
"I hadn't realised how big he was but what really struck me when I saw him in training was how unbelievably good he was technically," adds Delaney. "I would say he is as close to a complete midfield player as you are going to get in the modern game. He's quick, he's strong, he retains possession and he can see a pass."
Loftus-Cheek made 24 Premier League appearances during his season on loan at Palace, playing regular senior football for the first time in his career and earning plaudits in difficult circumstances. It was an invaluable experience for him, and Delaney was not the only person upon whom he made a lasting impression.
"In the games he has played, he has been almost our best player in every one of them," said Palace boss Roy Hodgson in May. "We have Wilfried Zaha, of course, but he has certainly been on his coat-tails. I have not worked with many players better than Ruben Loftus-Cheek and what he can be."
The guy literally has everything as a footballer, but most importantly for a young player, he has a really good temperament as well.
Loftus-Cheek had never experienced anything like life in the bottom half of the Premier League table, but he embraced the challenge willingly, helping Palace climb away from danger and ultimately playing his way into Southgate's World Cup squad.
"The guy literally has everything as a footballer, but most importantly for a young player, he has a really good temperament as well," says Delaney. "He's a calm guy and he's respectful. He understood what Crystal Palace was and the trouble that we were in, but he never once complained, even though he could have been at Chelsea. I think that's a good sign."
Loftus-Cheek's focus is on the World Cup for now, but soon enough attention will turn to next season. The midfielder has already made it clear that he will not be content to sit on the bench back at Chelsea, so much will depend on how whether next manager, expected to be former Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri, intends to use him.
"I think they did the right thing by the boy, letting him go on loan last season if he wasn't going to play regularly," says Blake. "Other clubs won't let their young English players go out on loan but it's done Ruben the world of good, no question about it. He's got the ability and he's proved that in the Premier League, so now he needs to keep playing."
"When you let the player out of the enclosure and allow them to gain their spurs, you've got to be able to cope with the consequences," adds Viveash. "Chelsea have an issue because Ruben will want to be a key player again and I don't blame him for that. He's gone past the developmental stage. He's now at the stage where he needs to be playing, otherwise he will never reach his potential."
Crystal Palace have made no secret of their desire to take Loftus-Cheek back to Selhurst Park, but they are unlikely to be his only suitors. If he can produce more of the barnstorming runs he is best known for before England's World Cup campaign is out, his list of admirers is sure to grow longer.
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