Chelsea youth development vindicated by Loftus-Cheek's England debut
Watching Ruben Loftus-Cheek garnish his England debut against Germany on Friday with a fine individual display was immensely gratifying for all Chelsea followers. For those who have watched him through the age groups, imposing himself at every level and consistently standing out among an incredibly talented crop of young players, their faith in his ability was vindicated. It is far too soon say that the 21-year-old has officially made it at the top level but the signs are hugely encouraging.
Predictably, it didn't take very long for television pundits to use Loftus-Cheek's performance to stick the boot into his parent club. Within minutes of the final whistle, they were decrying the fact that Chelsea had just spent around £75 million acquiring Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco and Danny Drinkwater from Leicester rather than place their belief in Loftus-Cheek. While there are some fair criticisms to be made regarding Chelsea's recruitment policy, on this occasion, other points had been missed.
For starters, a replacement for the outgoing Nemanja Matic was required, a largely defensive role that is not suited to Loftus-Cheek's more progressive talents. Secondly, a club like Chelsea is expected to constantly challenge for major honours so it made sense to bring in players that have been key contributors in title winning campaigns in the past two seasons. While Loftus-Cheek could theoretically play as the creative element alongside one of the more naturally conservative midfielders, Cesc Fabregas is currently the senior figure in that position meaning that game time would always have been limited.
The inference by those in the TV studio seemed to be that Chelsea were hindering his development rather than helping it, and that his eight games on loan at Crystal Palace -- none of which have resulted in victory -- had turned him from a prospect to a contender. Of course, regular exposure to top level football is essential though having been with the club since he was eight, Chelsea have clearly played the most important role in Loftus-Cheek's development. Rather than be used as a stick with which to beat Chelsea, his showing against the world champions should be proof of the English champions' ability to nurture the next generation of stars and celebrated accordingly.
On Friday, Loftus-Cheek became one of three graduates from the Chelsea academy to have been called up for England this season along with Nathaniel Chalobah and Tammy Abraham. Other than Chelsea, the other common denominator is that each of them has received international recognition after spending time away from the club. The conclusions appear obvious: Leave Chelsea if you want to prosper. But is it that straightforward?
Playing regularly is certainly important but training alongside world-class players at club level will also have been highly influential. Loftus-Cheek was part of the first team-squad at Chelsea for the previous two-and-a-half seasons while Chalobah spent the whole of last campaign with the seniors. Both will have learnt extensively from rubbing shoulders with the likes of N'Golo Kante, Matic, Fabregas, Eden Hazard, Willian et al even if minutes on the pitch were limited for each of the youngsters.
And in the same way that Loftus-Cheek has hardly been reinvented during his short spell at Selhurst Park, it seems unlikely that England boss Gareth Southgate based Chalobah's international credentials solely on the three Premier League appearances he had made for Watford prior to selection. A more credible explanation is that Southgate knows and trusts them from their days playing with the England U21s where both of them excelled.
Abraham is the anomaly of three, having spent far less time in the senior setup at Chelsea. Having scored bucketloads of goals through the age groups, he made his debut as an 18-year-old substitute in a 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Anfield in May 2016 but spent the following season plundering 23 goals in the Championship while on loan at Bristol City. Out of the trio, it is perhaps Abraham that has reaped the most reward from playing elsewhere with his four goals for a struggling Swansea side hinting that he might be the real deal. Unfortunately for him, his England debut was not nearly as compelling as Loftus-Cheek's though he still worked hard and showed enough decent touches not to look totally out of place.
One thing is clear, however. Chelsea is no finishing school for prospective talent. For all the exceptional scouting and development that the club undertakes at youth level, the stakes for the first team and particularly the coaching staff are so high that risks are rarely taken on unproven young players. Instead, their final educational modules are now taking place at other Premier league clubs. Chelsea will not benefit from Chalobah's form after he permanently severed his ties with the club in the summer, but both Loftus-Cheek and Abraham are due to return to Stamford Bridge next season. And if they continue to shine for Crystal Palace, Swansea City and even England, then perhaps in 2017-18, Chelsea fans will finally see two of their own starring regularly in their own team's shirt.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.