Although Chelsea have made use of their academy this season, there remains one key graduate yet to make an appearance.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek had to fight for his place under Maurizio Sarri last season but finally looked to have done so ahead of the Europa League final, becoming one of the first midfield names on the team sheet.
But Chelsea had a post-season friendly in between the end of their Premier League campaign and the Europa League final, travelling to America to face New England Revolution in a charity match against anti-Semitism.
In that game, Loftus-Cheek came on at half-time but lasted just 20 minutes before having to come off with what was first thought to be an ankle injury. It was later revealed that he ruptured his Achilles tendon, with the midfielder subsequently undergoing surgery — and he hasn’t featured for the first-team since.
It was first hoped Loftus-Cheek would be back before the end of 2019 but a setback delayed his return. However, February saw a boost with Loftus-Cheek finally returning to first-team training, and he has since appeared on the bench twice in the Premier League, albeit without getting onto the pitch.
Over the past few weeks, Frank Lampard has preached patience for fans wanting to see Loftus-Cheek back in action, with the Chelsea boss proving reluctant to rush back the England international.
However, given recent shortcomings for Chelsea, he may be forced to reintroduce Loftus-Cheek sooner than he would have liked.
Lampard’s selection dilemma
Chelsea have had a strange season thus far, contending with a one-window transfer ban, losing key players in the summer and having to rely on their younger stars. However, their biggest problem right now is on the injury front.
The Blues currently have four first-team regulars out with injury, including Tammy Abraham, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi. But the one that really counts in midfield is that to N’Golo Kante.
Kante has endured an injury-hit season having started the campaign with a knock, and has featured just 22 times across all competitions. His latest setback came in Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat to Manchester United on February 17, after he picked up an adductor injury which initially ruled him our for three weeks.
The Frenchman has since missed three matches — including defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League — and is not expected to return in time for the upcoming games against Liverpool and Everton.
Kante’s injury was brushed away by some, as the Frenchman hasn’t been at his best this season, on account of the aforementioned setbacks, with Chelsea often playing better with the duo of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic.
However, Jorginho is set to have a mini-break of his own, due to his knack of picking up yellow cards. The Italy international was booked in Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat to Bayern Munich. His third of the tournament, which has ruled him out for the return leg.
In the next game, against Bournemouth in the Premier League, Jorginho picked up another yellow card – his 10th in total – and will now sit out of Chelsea’s next two matches.
Jorginho will be available for Chelsea’s FA Cup fifth-round tie with Liverpool on Tuesday night but after that, the Blues are without him for the next three matches, adding to Kante’s absence.
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Where Lampard might need Loftus-Cheek
Lampard has already confirmed Loftus-Cheek will not be involved in the FA Cup, as he played 90 minutes for the U23s on Monday night. But once Everton comes around at the weekend, he may not have a choice.
Chelsea currently have three fit central midfielders in Kovacic, Mason Mount and Ross Barkley. Billy Gilmour would provide another option, but Lampard may not want to throw him in at the deep end just yet. But where Loftus-Cheek might come in depends entirely on the formation.
In the past three games, Lampard has used a 3-4-2-1 and if he continues with that, Loftus-Cheek can slot right into the midfield alongside Kovacic.
Kovacic will drop into Jorginho’s role in that formation, as he has done so on occasion, with his coolness on the ball enough to help Chelsea up the pitch. Only Jorginho has completed more passes than Kovacic in the Premier League this season, among Chelsea players, but the Croatian has been slightly more accurate with 89.6% to 88.02%.
In fact, only Andreas Christensen (90.06%) has been more accurate with his passes than Kovacic at Chelsea – excluding Tariq Lamptey who has completed all of his seven attempts in just 31 minutes of Premier League action.
Kovacic is also close to Jorginho for tackles, making 48 to the Italian’s 58, though the former Napoli man has also committed more fouls (25 to 14).
The Croatian’s presence in that role will allow Loftus-Cheek to operate more as a roaming midfielder, which he is certainly very good at.
Under Sarri last season, Loftus-Cheek averaged 3.75 successful take-ons per 90 minutes in the Premier League, with only Eden Hazard (4.25) performing better among Chelsea players. He also averaged 1.65 tackles per 90 minutes, proving he is capable of contributing in the defensive side of the game, which will be needed in this partnership.
But should Lampard opt for a return to the 4-3-3 formation he has so often favoured, having never stuck with a three-at-the-back for too long, Loftus-Cheek can do his bit yet again.
Once more, Kovacic will take Jorginho’s place, this time at the base of the midfield trio, being the conduit between defence and attack.
If Lampard takes inspiration from Sarri’s Chelsea, then Loftus-Cheek might be better off on the right side of midfield as he is the more capable tackler compared to Mount, who has averaged just 1.2 tackles per 90 minutes this season.
But Loftus-Cheek will still be able make his mark going forward, as a box-to-box midfielder of sorts, running at the defenders while Mount tries to break through them with his passing range.
This would, however, be a slightly riskier formation and relies on the midfield trio being strong enough defensively.
An alternative option
Should Lampard not wish to throw Loftus-Cheek in too soon, or even play him further ahead, then the Chelsea boss could rely on another Englishman to slot in alongside Kovacic.
With the Croat once again deployed in the Jorginho role, he could be joined by Reece James, who has had a good season so far in defence.
Although he is primarily a right-back, James also shone as a defensive midfielder while at Wigan Athletic last season, with his performances helping him win the club’s Player of the Year award.
In this position, James would play the Kante role to Kovacic’s Jorginho, running about the pitch while trying to put out fires with his tackling ability, but also looking to provide the defensive solidity that comes from being a natural full-back.
Chelsea would also be able to rely on their more attacking players to create, which could include Loftus-Cheek, even if he’s only afforded a cameo appearance in this instance.