Denmark U21 0-4 England U21: "Imperious" Ruben Loftus-Cheek provides timely reminder of his supreme talent as Aidy Boothroyd's side coast to victory in Randers.
England U21s ran out comfortable 4-0 winners against their Danish counterparts this evening. But, in a match where it was almost harder to disappoint rather than impress, one particular 21-year-old still managed to stand out above the rest, putting in a display accurately described during BT’s coverage as ‘imperious’.
That 21-year-old was Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The Chelsea youngster has been a near permanent fixture in the England U21s side, starting 12 of the last 18 matches; only ever being dropped because of injury, tight scheduling of matches or the desire to experiment with other developing talents. After all, with tonight’s performance he confirmed once again he is already beyond this level.
Notching two well taken goals, England’s #10 moved gracefully around the pitch, proving to be a menace in the final third due to his killer first touch and superb ball control. Driving forward with a glorious marriage of power and poise, he single-handedly parted the Danish defence with his penetrative dribbling; bulldozing past the numerous defenders that opposed him, dragging his team up the pitch as opposition players bounced off the Chelsea man’s hulking frame.
It is this physique that has defined the London-born midfielder, perhaps to his detriment. Stuart Pearce — a former England U21 manager — noted during the half-time break that he did not realise the Chelsea man was this good.
“I didn’t even know he was quick,” the former England full-back commented. “If you are Chelsea, there is no way you let this kid walk out the door.”
The infamous ‘great first touch for a big man’ cliché was also uttered during the post-match analysis of the game, but with David James also waxing-lyrical about Loftus-Cheek’s dominant display, it’s clear that it isn’t just us at Scouted that think he can be an England star.
“He can’t get in the best side in England at the moment, which is understandable,” James said on BT Sports.
“But why can’t he go and play for the likes of Sunderland, the likes of Burnley? He would improve England — and Chelsea — but one of our best players should be playing regularly.”
Now, in my excitement when watching such promising display I can often overstretch or let my child-like enthusiasm for players have too strong a bearing on my views. However, with Loftus-Cheek, each time I watch him play all my previous thoughts about his talent, his potential, are all reaffirmed. England really do have a star on their hands, and he is scarily similar to someone else.
It feels strange comparing a 21-year-old to a player one year his junior, but there is one English, Premier League talent that shares remarkable similarities with the Chelsea man: Dele Alli.
The Spurs star has defined the term ‘meteoric rise’ with his ridiculous acclimatisation to Premier League football, scoring and assisting goals at a rate that is far beyond what could have initially been expected. He is for all intents and purposes a freakish footballing talent.
Even more frightening, though, is his continued development as a player. By bursting on the scene last season, he would have been forgiven for failing to repeat the stunning feats of his maiden campaign. However, after a rather slow start, Dele has once again exploded into life, especially since moving further forward in Pochettino’s mouth-watering 3-4-2-1 system.
Deployed behind fellow U23 superstar, Harry Kane, Dele Alli has redefined himself as a ‘shadow striker’ of sorts. Drifting into the gaps between midfield and defence, the final third has become Dele Alli’s permanent home; the penalty area his pool-house.
So impressive has Dele Alli been — for which the rampant and well-drilled Spurs side he plays in must be given credit — he now finds himself operating in an almost identical role for the England national team. Partnered alongside Adam Lallana and behind Jamie Vardy in England’s recent friendly against Germany, Dele was awarded Man of the Match for his incisive attacking runs and posing the most threat to Ter Stegen’s goal, even if he was guilty of spurning good chances to make a breakthrough for Gareth Southgate’s side.
Against Lithuania, a far less ominous opposition, a switch to a version of 4-2-3-1 did not seem to have a notable impact on his position and intent during the game. An unorthodox #10, Dele Alli is not judged on his ability to create chances for others through passing and more conventional playmaking methods. Instead, he is encouraged to ghost into space either to receive the ball in the most dangerous position possible or create it for his teammates to move into. At 20, it is bold to say he has mastered it — and perhaps even wrong to — but there is no doubt he excels beyond any other Premier League player. His talent is unique.
Or so I thought.
Returning to the star of the evening, and of this article, Ruben Loftus-Cheek has all the credentials to replicate Dele Alli’s success in what is a relatively new, or at least rare role in Premier League football. What Dele Alli possesses in guile, intelligence and movement, the mental side of the game; Ruben Loftus-Cheek matches with his physicality, his strength, speed and power. And vice-versa.
Whilst Dele Alli has a super human footballing brain, Ruben Loftus-Cheek is simply a super human.
The similarities between the two are nonetheless apparent. Incredible technical ability, stature and killer first touch: all these qualities lend themselves to thriving in the final third and that is where both players are best. Despite being more than capable of playing in midfield — Dele showcased that throughout the 2015/16 season — the further up the pitch they go, the more dangerous an opponent they become.
It’s worth noting here that, as manager of the U21s, Gareth Southgate even used Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a centre-forward at times. Stationed in between two quick, pacey wide-men, the Chelsea man was required to hold the ball up, link play between midfield and the wingers beside him and, first and foremost, carry a goalscoring threat. The fact he has scored 6 goals in his last 5 starts for the England U21s is testament to his ability to do so.
The only looming question that remains is whether, like Dele Alli, this titanic talent can make the step up and perform in the same imposing manner as he so often does for the U21s. He may be far too good for his age group — he has been since he was 18 — but that does not necessarily translate smoothly into senior level.
He has all the base attributes to try and match Dele Alli. If he is able to apply himself in the same way, then not only will he then flourish in Chelsea’s original version of the in-vogue 3-4-2-1, but we could very well start to see him playing alongside Dele Alli in what is fast-becoming a very exciting England side, led by a manager who knows the country’s young talent better than anyone.
A future attacking trident of Dele Alli, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Harry Kane is the stuff of dreams. Based on tonight’s performance, I certainly want it to become a reality.
By Jake Entwistle