Crystal Palace’s season could hardly have got off to a worse start. Optimism was high following the ambitious appointment of Frank de Boer in June 2017, but the Eagles were torn apart by a hungry Huddersfield on the opening day, losing 3-0 at Selhurst Park to kick-start a run of seven Premier League games without a point or a goal.
There was one positive that afternoon, though: the performance of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The Chelsea loanee turned in a superb showing on his Palace debut, continually driving the team on from the centre of the park after being moved infield from the right at half-time. The standout moment came midway through the second period, when he made a brilliant recovery tackle on Tom Ince before spraying a pinpoint diagonal pass to the feet of Wilfried Zaha, turning defence into attack in an instant.
Check it out at 3:17
Bombed out at the Bridge
Back then, the World Cup – and, more specifically, a starting spot in England’s second match – must have seemed like a distant dream for the then 21-year-old.
Loftus-Cheek had started just six Premier League games over three seasons before embarking on a season-long loan at Palace, with parent club Chelsea opting to sign Danny Drinkwater and Tiemoue Bakayoko rather than give their youth product regular football at Stamford Bridge. The move proved worthwhile, though, and the midfielder benefited from regular first-team appearances for the first time in his career.
Loftus-Cheek’s bright start to the season at club level saw him rewarded with a call-up to the England squad for the November friendlies against Germany and Brazil.
He made his international debut in the former clash and grasped the opportunity with both hands, delivering a man-of-the-match display against the world champions at Wembley. Bold, bright and utterly unfazed by the occasion, Loftus-Cheek impressed with his touch, poise and craft. “He's got so many good attributes, top attributes, and that's why we put him into the team,” Gareth Southgate said afterwards.
Right for Roy
Palace, meanwhile, were gradually improving under new boss Roy Hodgson, who settled on a narrow 4-4-2 formation in which Loftus-Cheek was deployed on the right of midfield. While not his most natural position, the youngster continued to perform consistently and diligently, tracking back to help out defensively as well as drifting inside to help build attacks.
Palace were beset by an injury crisis around the turn of the year, and Loftus-Cheek joined the list of absentees after he sustained an ankle issue in the 3-2 home defeat to Arsenal in late December. His return was repeatedly put back and there was some concern that he might not play for the Eagles again, particularly as his entire recovery period was spent back at Chelsea.
Those lack of minutes meant Loftus-Cheek was left out of Southgate’s squad for the friendlies against Holland and Italy in March, as Adam Lallana and Jack Wilshere stole a march in the race to make the travelling party for Russia.
He made his return to Premier League action that month, appearing as a late substitute in the crucial 2-0 win at Huddersfield. The midfielder was back in the starting XI a few weeks later for the 2-2 draw with Bournemouth and played 526 of Palace’s final 540 minutes of the season, helping Hodgson’s side pull clear of the relegation zone and into the sanctuary of mid-table.
This time fielded on the left of a midfield four, Loftus-Cheek again impressed with his drive, footwork and creativity. He grabbed only his second goal of the season in April's 5-0 thrashing of Leicester, capping a magnificent all-round performance as the star man in Palace’s best display of the campaign.
Into the fray
Those three attributes were also on display against Tunisia on Monday, when Loftus-Cheek came on with 10 minutes left to play. Composed as ever, the Chelsea man showed some neat touches as Southgate's side turned the screw, and their sustained pressure was eventually rewarded when Harry Kane headed home a dramatic winner in stoppage time.
Loftus-Cheek's promising cameo means he's in pole position to replace the injured Dele Alli in England’s XI to face Panama on Sunday. His invention and intricacy in tight spaces could be invaluable against opponents that will sit deep and pack men behind the ball.
Although Loftus-Cheek's 6ft 3in frame hints at power and strength, it's his technical gifts and graceful movement which set him apart. He's an accomplished ball-carrier too, offering a useful alternative to Alli and Jesse Lingard; players who thrive more at making intelligent and dynamic runs out of possession.
"You don't get into the England set-up as he did on the back of his performances unless you have some exceptional qualities," Hodgson, a former Three Lions boss himself, said in March.
“Him being selected had nothing to do with me. I wasn’t calling Gareth Southgate, saying you should be calling this player. It was Gareth Southgate ringing me up, telling me he’d like to select Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
"He's very good at screening, keeping the ball. He’s very good at beating players. His work-rate has been very good. That’s something he’s worked on. He has all the qualities you're looking for in a central midfielder. He doesn't have any weaknesses and he will get better."
Russian duo Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba have already shown that you don’t necessarily need to be in the starting line-up in the opening game to make a major impact at a World Cup. Should Loftus-Cheek play well against Panama, it would be very difficult for Southgate to drop him, regardless of Alli’s fitness going forward.
If the past year is anything to go by, expect him to seize his chance.
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