Loftus-Cheek is Chelsea's best player right now and deserves to start City showdown

The Blues academy's brightest star of recent years is finally living up to the hype and he is doing it in what was his make-or-break season

Ruben Loftus-Cheek may only make the bench on Saturday evening, but Maurizio Sarri can no longer leave him out of his matchday squads entirely after a rich vein of form has him in the headlines for all the right reasons.

Sarri will likely pick the midfielder for his 18 man squad, as a goal-scoring rampage of six goals in seven games has shot him up to third in the club's top scorers' chart. He has outscored all his team-mates since his first start, his strike rate of one goal every 95 minutes surpassing Chelsea's forwards.

Loftus-Cheek's place in the squad has been hard fought, especially with three players in him, Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley all vying for one spot.

He began the season well below both of his rivals in the pecking order, as Sarri sees Kante and Jorginho as crucial for his side and undroppable. Loftus-Cheek could see the warning signs in the summer transfer window and had several meetings with Sarri before deciding to stay. 

And for a while it looked like a bad decision, as the 22-year-old waited almost two months for his first start. He finally got it against MOL Vidi but then picked up an injury in his right tibia. His season really began with a hat-trick against BATE, which helped him earn precious increased game time.

Arguably the most mature performances of his career have come in recent weeks, including a controlling display against PAOK at Stamford Bridge, where he didn't fully get the plaudits due to Callum Hudson-Odoi's goal. Even against Wolves Loftus-Cheek stood out as Sarri hauled off other stars and Chelsea chased a game that they let slip and ultimately lost 2-1.

Sarri's reservations about using Loftus-Cheek are the same ones that Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho had: that he wasn't tactically mature enough, leading to a defensively weakened side. This is despite his more natural physical and technical gifts that help control a midfield. Even after his Europa League hat-trick, Sarri was clear where Loftus-Cheek needs to improve.

"In the offensive phase: wonderful," Sarri said at Stamford Bridge in October. "I told him at the beginning of the season I thought he was really a very good player. Now I think the same, but now he’s now more suitable to my football. He's improving.

"He needs to improve in the defensive phase, but it’s not only Loftus. At the moment we have four midfielders for two positions. Three of them with the same characteristics. Only Kante is a defensive midfielder. It's very difficult for me to put two offensive midfielders in the starting XI at the same time.

"I hope to be able to do it in the future. I need the cooperation of the players of course. I need an improvement in the defensive phase."

Ruben Loftus-Cheek GFX

It has always been a paradox for Loftus-Cheek, how does he improve tactically and defensively if he doesn't play? The rapid hiring and firing of managers at Chelsea stops players like Loftus-Cheek reaching their full potential, as the revolving door makes coaches averse to the risks of playing young players over proven stars. 

Loftus-Cheek has always been the outstanding talent in the dominant academy, seeming likely to be lined up to replace John Terry as the figure that links local fans to the club. This status may have had an impact in Chelsea's decision not to go on loan for many years, until he finally spent a season with Crystal Palace last year.

At the same age, Dele Alli has played over 250 senior games in his career in the time it took Loftus-Cheek to reach 50 league appearances, with only 28 coming as starts. This season represented a make-or-break campaign after years of patience from the young Englishman, who could wait no longer after proving his worth at Palace and playing in a World Cup with England.

He has shown again this season that he is talented enough to play in a Chelsea shirt, but he would undoubtedly be ready for an even bigger role had he played more senior games in his career. However, his discipline this season to come out fighting for his spot is something that should be lauded.

“We've talked a lot – you've heard him say to the press that I need to learn tactically," Loftus-Cheek said after his goal-scoring substitute appearance against Fulham. "That's what I'm trying to improve on day in, day out on the training pitch and the more I do that the more opportunities I'll get to play.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek quote GFX

“That's the main focus right now. I will always believe I'll get to where I want to be if I keep my head down. I try not to think too much about the future, especially not at a time like where you're not playing so much, but that's life. You have to deal with it.

“Every footballer goes through tough times. From playing a lot to not playing a lot is tough. It's life, it's football. These things happen and you have to be strong mentally as a player, especially nowadays.

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“I try to take it in my stride. It's all a learning curve so I'm just really focused and aware of what I need to learn.”

Sarri has now refuted that Loftus-Cheek will go on loan in January, as the midfielder is taking advantage of a poor run of form from his team-mates to show he is the man to step up.

Loftus-Cheek has pushed for a start, but if he is on the bench he will be Sarri's first substitution should Chelsea need a goal against in-form Manchester City.