When Fulham signed Ruben Loftus-Cheek last summer it was heralded as a coup for the Cottagers — but the Chelsea loanee has failed to live up to expectations.
Scott Parker’s men face Burnley tonight knowing relegation back to the Championship will be confirmed if they do not beat the Clarets.
So why has Loftus-Cheek not been able to help fire them to safety this season and what is next for the towering central midfielder?
Fulham were widely commended for their transfer business last October, when they secured the signings of Loftus-Cheek and defensive duo Tosin Adarabioyo and Joachim Andersen.
Sporting director Tony Khan could not contain his excitement when announcing Loftus-Cheek’s arrival.
He said: “Ruben is a world-class player in the prime of his career. He has earned great experience in the Premier League and we believe he will be so valuable to our club in our fight ahead of us.”
It is no surprise that Khan was ebullient. Loftus-Cheek, 25, had been a domineering presence in the centre of the park while on loan at Crystal Palace in 2017-18, earning a call-up to Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the 2018 World Cup.
The midfielder’s time at Fulham was always likely to get off to a slow start.
He had ruptured his Achilles tendon in May 2019 and spent the vast majority of the 2019-20 campaign on the treatment table.
The Craven Cottage faithful were patient with their new arrival but it soon became apparent Loftus-Cheek was a shadow of the player who had looked so impressive before suffering such a significant injury.
A timid team
Of course, it would be unfair to blame Fulham’s struggles on Loftus-Cheek alone.
This is a team that has had difficulty in the final third all season, scoring just 0.74 goals per 90 minutes ahead of this gameweek — the second-worst record in the Premier League behind Sheffield United (0.53).
That can partly be attributed to the club’s failure to secure a recognised striker in the summer or in January but it is worth noting their 0.91 big chances created per 90 is similarly unimpressive.
Loftus-Cheek must shoulder some of the blame for that lack of creativity, having featured in 27 matches this season and been a key component in Fulham’s attacking unit.
Lack of output
The 10-cap England international has largely been deployed on the right flank or just behind a central striker by Parker, though his versatility has also seen him played in a deeper midfield role and even up front on occasion.
That constant changing of positions and Fulham’s rotating formations may have contributed to his struggles at Craven Cottage — Loftus-Cheek played his best football on the left of a 4-4-2 under Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace.
But the fact remains he has contributed just a solitary goal and not a single assist in 2020-21.
That may be excusable if his all-round game was compensating for the lack of output but the 6ft 3in midfielder has been sloppy in possession and largely ineffective with the ball all season.
Thomas Tuchel’s recent comments will have been music to Loftus-Cheek’s ears — the Chelsea boss appeared to be full of praise for the Lewisham native.
Speaking last month, he said: “I was quite a fan of him when he was even younger. It reminded us a bit of his style of play and movements with Michael Ballack.
“There were some links about him all the time with maybe a move to the German league so we were well aware of his talent.
“He is on loan now and doing well. It would be unfair to judge him from TV. I like to work with players and give my opinion then — maybe also pretty quick but also from a direct impression.
“I don’t know what my opinion is or the club’s opinion is. There’s no decision made yet.”
It appears Loftus-Cheek will be given another chance to prove himself at Stamford Bridge but, in truth, he appears a long way short of the standards required by the German tactician.
Another loan move next season may be on the cards, as the one-time prodigy looks to recapture the form that took the Premier League by storm just three seasons ago.
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