Loftus-Cheek Will Be Integral To Sarri’s Future
April 11, 2019
It wasn’t a million moons ago that some Chelsea fans were demanding Maurizio Sarri’s sacking. The 6-0 humiliation at Manchester City was, to some, the straw that broke the camel’s back and it seemed the Italian’s stubbornness would prove to be his undoing. However, Sarri is a manager whose core belief is that a 4-3-3 system, not too dissimilar to his Napoli setup, is the way forward.
Teams don’t merely bring in a new manager with a solid plan A for that be abandoned when the going gets tough. Rather, the aim is to hone and develop that system so it becomes second nature for the players and the team in question is all the stronger for it. Take Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, for example.
City finished third in Guardiola’s debut season at the Etihad Stadium helm and rather than dismiss the Spaniard for their shortcomings, the club’s board applied patience and they profited from doing so. Indeed, City swept aside all those before them in Guardiola’s second season in charge and in his third campaign, remain in the running to land the quadruple.
Given City’s limitless resources compared to Chelsea’s, coupled with a transfer ban looming, it means the Blues are unlikely to achieve a similar level of success in Sarri’s second season, but like City and Guardiola, patience is a virtue for a side that has previously been too trigger happy with their managers. Sarri, too, was hindered by a shorter pre-season, with the 60-year-old only taking over the reins in mid-July, leaving him with just three weeks to implement ‘Sarri-ball’ before the Community Shield meeting with City.
Yet even at this stage of the season, Chelsea remain in the running to secure Champions League football for next season, and are still in with a shot at silverware in the Europa League. As they strive to end the campaign strongly, Sarri has taken the opportunity to tinker with the personnel in his team rather than the system itself, with two young English stars benefitting.
Callum Hudson-Odoi has started back-to-back league matches for Chelsea, perhaps as they attempt to convince the teenager his future lies at Stamford Bridge rather than elsewhere. It’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek, though, who is beginning to make his long-awaited breakthrough for the Blues. Like Hudson-Odoi, Loftus-Cheek has also started back-to-back league matches, having a direct hand in three of Chelsea’s five goals in wins over Brighton and West Ham, scoring one and assisting two.
Despite registering just 636 minutes of league action this season, the 23-year-old has had a direct hand in seven goals, scoring five, and such a fine return means that, of those to have scored or assisted five of more goals, only Sergio Aguero (every 76.5 mins) and Leroy Sane (every 89.9 mins) are having a direct hand in a goal more frequently than Loftus-Cheek (every 90.6 mins) in the Premier League this season, as per WhoScored.com.
A series of injury issues earlier in the campaign stunted his game time, but in the Europa League; the England international has performed to the standards expected of him and he’s transferring that over to the domestic game. In Sarri’s ideal midfield three, there is the deep-lying playmaker, with Jorginho filling that role, the aggressive ball winner in N’Golo Kante, which leaves Loftus-Cheek in competition with a handful of teammates battling for that third spot. Mateo Kovacic was brought in on loan from Real Madrid, with a permanent move in the offing, while Ross Barkley has really begun to realise his immense potential for the Blues.
It’s a similar style to his Napoli side with Jorginho occupying the, well, Jorginho role and Kante performing similar duties to Allan. It means Kovacic, Barkley and Loftus-Cheek are competing to play in a similar vein to Marek Hamsik, with the trio tasked with linking the midfield and attack. As impressive a ball carrier as Kovacic may be, his final ball has been found wanting this season and it’s seen the Croat return just two Premier League assists in his short Chelsea career.
Barkley has fared better, with three goals and five assists, but even so; two goals and one assist came in a 4-0 win at Burnley and he, like Kovacic, at times struggles to pick the right option in the final third. Loftus-Cheek, though, combines both his ability to glide past opponents with impressive vision to good effect. He is top for successful dribbles per 90 (4.2) of all Chelsea players, as per WhoScored.com, and features highly for key passes per 90 (1.7). For comparison’s sake, Barkley (1.6) and Kovacic (1.4) rank second and third, respectively, of the midfielders in competition with Loftus-Cheek for this spot.
“I think he can become one of the best midfielders, not only in England, but in Europe,” Sarri said of the young English midfielder following Chelsea’s 5-0 thrashing of Dynamo Kyiv last month and with his injury issues seemingly behind him, there is some truth to the Italian’s words. Loftus-Cheek has an extremely high ceiling and as a driving force in midfield, there are few who can stop him when he gains a head of steam. Injuries have dented his development, yet if he can stay fit, then there is no reason why he can’t be a long-term fixture in Sarri’s Chelsea side.
Chelsea are a more complete, cohesive unit with Loftus-Cheek in the starting XI. Kovacic has ongoing stamina issues while Barkley has a tendency to fade in and out of games, but Loftus-Cheek is a consistent force in the side and an ideal midfielder to perfectly compliment Jorginho and Kante.
As Sarri works tirelessly to establish a plan A tactical setup at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s academy product has proven of late this plan is all the more formidable when he is included. Sarri would be wise to continue with Loftus-Cheek in his midfield three going forward and the surging runs upfield that have become synonymous with the player, not to mention the final goal and assist output, should become a regular feature of this Chelsea side in the not-too-distant future.