Why Ruben Loftus-Cheek could be more important to Chelsea than you think
Tony Pulis’s rigorously organised defence will be a stern test of Chelsea’s creative powers, but the emergence of young Ruben Loftus-Cheek offers an exciting opportunity for a reshuffle in central midfield.
With Cesc Fabregas released from defensive duties, Jose Mourinho’s side may be returning to the expansive, attacking football of autumn.
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Pulis’s tactical strategy is very consistent. Instructing his players to sit deep and concede possession, West Brom defend deep, limiting space in central areas and protecting the goal with a highly organised shield.
This system is exacerbated against stronger opposition; in their three matches against the top four in 2015, West Brom held 30% possession against Liverpool, 27% against Manchester City and 24% against Manchester United – yet earned four points.
Mourinho will know that Pulis’ defence is one of the hardest to beat in the Premier League. Fortunately for Chelsea, Loftus-Cheek’s introduction may help reinvigorate a jaded-looking starting XI.
One of the most palpable differences between Chelsea’s free-flowing autumn and the reserved approach of 2015 is the performances of Oscar. His decline in form has characterised this stuttering run, largely because the pivoting No.10 role is of heightened importance in a narrow Blues attack.
However, Ruben-Cheek’s confident defensive midfield display (27 passes, 100% pass accuracy) against Liverpool offers a solution. If his development continues at this rate, the 19-year-old could become a permanent fixture alongside Nemanja Matic, allowing Fabregas to venture further forward.
The Spaniard’s defensive failings are well documented (0.7 interceptions per match), and it may be that Mourinho – like Barcelona – eventually loses patience in his positional indiscipline. Re-positioning Fabregas into a No.10 would be an ideal compromise, given his considerable creative talents (18 assists this season) and ability to carve open the meanest of defences.
How he fares against the brick wall of West Brom will offer some indication of his future in this role and, as a consequence, Loftus-Cheek’s future in the starting line-up.