Ruben Loftus-Cheek lit up Wembley with a classy debut in England’s 0-0 draw with Germany, writes Adam Bate.
If this really was a farce of a game that would tell Gareth Southgate nothing for the future then somebody forgot to tell Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The young midfielder was England’s most accomplished player as they posed plenty of problems for World Cup holders Germany in Friday’s friendly at Wembley. The game was goalless but Loftus-Cheek shone.
In more ways than one, Loftus-Cheek is a rarity. The sight of his bulky 6’3″ frame in the No 10 shirt can be a jarring one, the jersey and role more typically filled by a lithe figure such as opposite number Mesut Ozil. But the 21-year-old showed that he has subtlety to his game as well as strength. This is a player of robust presence but one with a delicate touch.
It did not take him too long to demonstrate that on his debut. Eighteen minutes in and he treated the crowd to a nutmeg-Cruyff turn combination near the right touchline that oozed confidence. That had the feel of a party trick but there was purpose to his work too, peeling off his markers in midfield and prompting England’s forays into the Germany half.
Just before the break, he should have had an assist, lofting a perfectly weighted pass over the defence and into the path of Jamie Vardy only for the striker to divert his attempted lob far off target. Soon after the interval, he started the move that saw Vardy denied for a second time, his header from Kieran Trippier’s cross saved low by Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.
In the space of one particularly promising minute around the hour mark, Loftus-Cheek was at it again, drawing in two Germany players before slipping an imaginative pass between them both to free Jake Livermore on the counter-attack. Moments later, he spotted a third-man run by Eric Dier and played a delicious clipped pass that opened up the opposition.
When it was all over, the least experienced of England’s least experienced line-up in 37 years was walking away with the man of the match award. The Opta stats revealed that he had a better pass completion rate than his counterpart Ozil having made as many accurate through-balls and created more chances. He was the man most likely to spark something.
Which is the second reason why Loftus-Cheek is such a unique sight for England supporters. England have pace in this squad with Vardy and Marcus Rashford. The Tottenham pairing of Harry Kane and Dele Alli will, of course, return too. But who is there to pick out the pass that will find them? Certainly not an established player of the calibre of Christian Eriksen.
That is why so many still cling to the hope that Jack Wilshere can somehow reignite his early promise, others talk up Ross Barkley’s unfulfilled potential, and why Southgate yearns for the return of Adam Lallana. Loftus-Cheek has many different attributes to each of them but he boasts that same capacity to break through the lines. Now he is at the head of the queue.
He spoke afterwards of feeling at ease at senior level with his old Under-21 boss in charge and ex-Chelsea assistant Steve Holland there too. For those who were at St George’s Park to hear Gareth Southgate speak at length about his potential as long ago as 2015 – “physically he is a different profile and we are excited about him” – it is no surprise to see him involved.
What happens next though is unclear. Southgate’s preferred players will return and England’s line-up will take on a more familiar look once more. But Loftus-Cheek’s display will not be forgotten and he at least has the opportunity on loan at Crystal Palace to get the sort of regular first-team action that had appeared to stifle his progress at parent club Chelsea.
This is a player who did not start a Premier League game last season and despite featuring seven times for Palace this season has still not been in a winning starting line-up in the competition in over 18 months. Loftus-Cheek must go back to club football and show that he can produce this high level of performance over a sustained period of time.
First, there is a second showpiece international fixture against Brazil. It is some introduction for the five England debutants who featured on Friday night. If Loftus-Cheek can follow up with another strong performance on Tuesday then he will have plenty more people believing Southgate’s post-match assessment that the young midfielder is “capable of anything”.