Standing on the brink of a new era at Chelsea, Ruben Loftus-Cheek is ready to play a leading role after several false dawns and says young players at the club can now see a pathway to the first team.
Todd Boehly, the American businessman, experienced an early taste of the melodrama that awaits him during Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Wolves.
But as the lead member of the consortium set to buy the club for £4.25bn slunk out of Stamford Bridge’s West Stand in shock at how two points had been thrown away, he may well have taken solace in the performance of Chelsea’s marauding midfield powerhouse.
It would be an alarming collapse were Boehly’s first season in charge not to involve competing in the Champions League – and Wednesday’s encounter at Leeds, live on Sky Sports, offers another chance for Chelsea to take a significant stride towards achieving this objective.
For Loftus-Cheek, the team’s collective wobble has come at a time when he has been shifting through the gears. Denied the opener against Wolves by a marginal VAR call for offside, his overall display – his eighth start in the last 11 games – added to his recent resurgence.
“I’ve been really happy with how I’ve played personally,” Loftus-Cheek exclusively tells Sky Sports. “I had a bit of a niggle with my Achilles mid-season which stunted my progress a bit but I came back from that and I’m enjoying my football again.
“I’m really happy to have played in some big games in the Champions League and in the FA Cup. I want to keep this going and hopefully we’ll get some big results soon. I’m taking on completely different responsibilities now.
“Coming into Chelsea this season, I didn’t know what to expect positionally. I’ve always seen myself as a midfielder but someone who can do jobs in different positions.
“It’s something which I did coming through the ranks in the academy so I’m not completely foreign to them – and my skillset allows me to carry out those jobs so whenever I’m called upon to play a certain role, I’ll do it to the best of my ability.
“I’ve been playing deeper in midfield which is completely different from the past six or seven years when I was more of an attacking player but I’ve always had defensive qualities so for me to switch the mindset and have a more defensive hat on is certainly different this season.
“I’ve enjoyed the challenge from right wing-back, to centre-back to the No 6 role in midfield. It is very different but I’ve enjoyed it.”
Tuchel has an enviable record in reaching domestic and European finals since his appointment and Chelsea will be formidable opponents in this weekend’s FA Cup final for Liverpool, who are in search of a historic Quadruple.
Loftus-Cheek was on the scoresheet last month in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace in the semi-finals and the club are preparing to reverse recent history in their third successive final appearance having lost on the last two occasions to Arsenal and Leicester.
While the road to Wembley is on the horizon, Loftus-Cheek acknowledges the side must make the short trip across the capital with momentum behind them.
“We just couldn’t get over the line against Wolves,” he says, reflecting on the disappointment of last Saturday. “Every team in the Premier League is a tough game. It may not always be a passing team, but each team fights and every team has belief so even when they’re 2-0 down away from home, they still fight until the very end.
“You’d love to have a game done in the 60th minute but you rarely get that in this league! We went into the training ground the next day and I don’t think the players saw it as a punishment at all. We came in and recovered. Sometimes it’s better to do that when there’s a short turnaround to another game.
“We had a chat amongst ourselves just to make sure we’re all on the same page and the same wavelength going into the Leeds game. It’s important for us to stay together.”
This is not the ideal time to be heading to Elland Road, four days before an FA Cup final against a Liverpool side who will have had 24 hours extra rest – a point that Tuchel refused to be drawn on.
Leeds have dropped into the Premier League relegation zone for the first time since October courtesy of an inferior goal difference to Burnley. But if Chelsea continue their recent poor league form with defeat in Yorkshire, Arsenal could move to within a point of third place with victory at Tottenham on Thursday.
Loftus-Cheek agrees with Tuchel’s assertion that the next game is always the most important, blocking out the Wembley showpiece until after the events in Leeds have unfolded.
“We’re used to these turnarounds now,” he says. “We’ve played in all the competitions this season towards the latter stages and at a top club, you have to be able to switch your focus onto the closest game. For us, all of our focus is on Leeds and getting the job done.
“Qualifying again for the Champions League is huge. This club deserves to be in the competition every season and we want to reflect that again in the final few games as for the most part we’ve been fantastic – especially in Europe. We want to get this over the line.”
Loftus-Cheek comes from a footballing family. Carl and Leon Cort are half-brothers of the Chelsea midfielder – something he only found out in later life.
Still only 26, he grew up idolising Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry – but having scored his first goal for Chelsea since May 2019 in the win against Palace, the midfielder is finally establishing himself as an important cog in Tuchel’s team.
When in full flow, there are very few opponents who can compete with his power and athleticism. His close control and driving runs have been a feature of his game ever since a young age, but it is now being seen more consistently.
It has been a career punctuated by injuries, two Premier League loans and a variety of positions, but Loftus-Cheek is experiencing a new lease of life under Tuchel having found a new role under the German which indicates he may yet have a bright future at Chelsea.
Speaking ahead of the Leeds game, Tuchel revealed the club’s ongoing takeover has acted as a “distraction” – not an excuse, but a reason for a poor run of results.
The side still need four more points to be assured of Champions League football next season – something which looked to have been cemented prior to the March international break.
Since then, the Blues have taken just eight points from their last possible 21, and Loftus-Cheek has called on his team-mates to show a strong response at the start of an important week.
“These are the kind of things that as an elite athlete you have to try to block out,” he admits when asked about the sanctions and the sale of the club.
“These are the challenges that you have to deal with, the stuff that happens on the outside. These things are out of our control and as players, you have to try your best to deal with it.
“In this particular situation, there’s been things going on that have meant that we as a team have needed to stick together and focus on what we need to do in the Premier League and in the FA Cup.
“At the time [the UK government imposed sanctions on Chelsea], we got together and spoke about the need to stay focused. It’s not easy, but we have to try not to worry about what’s happening on the outside and let the club sort that out. All we can do is the best we can on the pitch and I feel we have done this at times.
“We’re going through a rough patch at the moment, but I think given the circumstances we’ve done really well to play through it.”
Tuchel has never doubted the Loftus-Cheek’s natural footballing ability, giving a prescient message to the player on the eve of the FA Cup semi-final with Crystal Palace in which his opening strike set Chelsea on their way to victory.
The Chelsea boss said on the eve of the game: “[His career] has been so promising, but it has always been like, will he have his breakthrough? Now, will he have his breakthrough?
“He is at a certain age now, and he’s never had his breakthrough, everybody is still waiting, still waiting for the next step and the next step.
“So for him, it’s crucial, crucial, crucial to focus on the very day he is in. It can be a huge distraction to think a week ahead, two weeks ahead, or a month ahead about what can be. There could have been so much more, and it does not make sense to worry because he is where he is.
I’ve always kept a vision. I still believe in what I want to achieve in football and my confidence is building now. I want to keep that momentum going
“We speak a lot about this. He is gifted to be here, and it is a huge, huge opportunity. He has everything that it takes – he wouldn’t play, or we wouldn’t count on him otherwise – but he has heard this for many years, maybe too much.
“He heard this throughout the academy levels. Through the loans, everybody was telling him how good the potential is and how big a future there can be. But the future is only there if you live up to it in the present.
“He needs to trust himself. With him, it’s not overconfidence with him, it’s the opposite. He needs to get confidence in his body physically and his ability to do this [type of performance] not once or twice, but three, four, ten, twenty times.”
Loftus-Cheek has all the tools – “it’s in him”, insists Tuchel – to become one of the Premier League’s most complete midfielders. Chelsea self-destructed against Wolves, but is it an issue of self-confidence that has held the player back?
“He’s right,” Loftus-Cheek says when Tuchel’s words are relayed to him. “As a player, it’s consistency that gives you the confidence. It’s not something I’ve always had. I’ve always had confidence in my ability and I know about my potential.
“I know how good I can be, but you need that consistency. You can’t just have immense confidence without playing regularly. It just doesn’t go hand in hand. When you start getting that consistency of playing, you start to feel good in your body and then the confidence comes through that.
“I’ve always kept a vision. I still believe in what I want to achieve in football and my confidence is building now. I want to keep that momentum going.
“If you’re coming through from the Under 18s or Under 23s, just training with the first team can help so much. You can soak in so much information, but it does reach a point where you’ve played with the first team for a bit and you feel you can handle that level then for sure there’s no substitute for playing regularly – whether that’s in the Championship or a different country.
“You just need to get that stimulus of playing every week, and that’s the foundation of your footballing knowledge. It helps you to better understand your body. I didn’t necessarily have that consistency growing up so it was very difficult for me to have that base of fitness and confidence in myself but everyone has a different journey.”
Ensuring the next Ruben Loftus-Cheek emerges from Chelsea’s much-coveted academy is on the agenda for the club’s new owner. The Under-23s narrowly avoided relegation from Premier League 2 at the weekend after victory over Tottenham ended a season of struggle for last term’s runners-up. The club can only hope it is a blip. Age-group football has a tendency to be cyclical.
Lifting the Under-16 Premier League Nationals Cup points towards a brighter future, but the re-emergence of Loftus-Cheek is a timely reminder for Boehly not to neglect the stars of tomorrow.
“Chelsea have always brought through talent and made talent coming through the ranks,” says Loftus-Cheek. “For me, maybe I didn’t really have anyone to look up to. Other than John Terry, there weren’t players coming through from the academy to the first team regularly.
“I didn’t have the idol to look up to and see where I could go but now you see the players who have reached the first team and hopefully the boys can see there is a pathway and see it can be done in different ways. You might not just go straight through, you might have to go on loan, but the pathway is there to end up in the Chelsea first team.
“Hopefully we can inspire those boys in the Under-23s and below that it can be done.”
Tapping into Cobham’s elite production line which continues to develop players ready for top-flight football should be at the very centre of this brave new dawn.
Loftus-Cheek made his senior England debut in November 2017, collecting the man-of-the-match award in a 0-0 draw against Germany at Wembley and receiving widespread acclaim.
It was the first of 10 caps yet becoming an emblem of Gareth Southgate’s team was derailed by setback after setback, forcing him to withdraw from each England squad during the 2018/19 campaign before he suffered a ruptured Achilles in May 2019 to rule him out for over a year.
Having been part of Southgate’s England squad for the 2018 World Cup, the prospect of representing his country in Qatar may not currently be at the forefront of his thoughts, but it remains a clear target between now and the end of the year.
“It’s always a dream for me to play for England at a World Cup so it was an incredible experience to be part of the squad in 2018 off the back of my first full Premier League season at Crystal Palace. I was feeling good but I’ve not been in the fold now for a while. I still want to play for England and I still believe my qualities will allow me to.
“I’ll keep pushing but the focus right now is on getting a top-four finish and winning the FA Cup with Chelsea.”
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is re-imposing himself at just the right time.
How to follow Leeds vs Chelsea on Sky Sports
Leeds vs Chelsea is live on Sky Sports Premier League from 7pm; kick-off 7.30pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app. Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.
On the latest Essential Football Podcast, host Ron Walker is joined by Sam Blitz and Zinny Boswell to talk the Premier League title race as Man City took advantage of Liverpool’s slip-up to widen the gap at the top of the table, plus the race for Europe, survival and a dramatic final WSL weekend.
PART 1 | Is there still hope for Liverpool, with Manchester City moving three points clear in the title race? Why have Chelsea collapsed, are Arsenal home and dry in the race for Europe or can Spurs get a result in the north London derby to cause a late upset?
PART 2 | Advantage Everton in the Premier League survival race. What’s changed for Frank Lampard? Who should be more worried out of Burnley or Leeds? And we put Sam and Zinny’s knowledge of Man Utd’s woes to the test in a special game of ‘higher or lower’.
PART 3 | After a dramatic final weekend in the WSL, how did Chelsea retain the title and where did it not quite happen for Arsenal? What are the takeaways from the rest of the league table and what can we expect to happen this summer?