Thomas Tuchel's perfect Ruben Loftus-Cheek decision that shows the key to Chelsea star's best
12 months ago Ruben Loftus-Cheek moved on loan to Fulham.
The Blues academy product was on his way back from a devastating achilles injury and had featured in Frank Lampard's opening game of the 2019/20 season against Brighton. But that was all.
In discussions with Lampard, it had been decided that the midfielder wasn't as sharp as he needed to be to command a place with Chelsea, but regular minutes were necessary to get back to his best.
That situation told the story of much of Loftus-Cheek's season.
At his best he looked capable of changing any game Fulham were in, but more regularly he would drift in and out of games and lacked impact in a struggling side.
The 25-year-old featured across the base of midfield, on the right wing and just off of Fulham's forward and was asked to both show his ability to drive forward and be a physical target for the Cottagers.
While the Chelsea academy didn't win over the west London side's fans, Scott Parker was a keen supporter.
Speaking in March, Parker said: "Ruben has been a fantastic addition. I've seen someone grow immensely from the start of the season to a person and player now who has transformed. He's grown massively and been a massive help for us.
"At the moment it's just about this year for Ruben, focus on the next 10 games and where he can still get better. But at the end if there's an opportunity to get it done I'd be more than happy to."
But in those final games of the season, Loftus-Cheek primarily returned to a peripheral figure as Fulham's form waned, and, when their relegation was confirmed, playing time was awarded to those who had not received many opportunities over the course of the season.
The Blues midfielder's time at Craven Cottage could at best be considered divisive. He was no doubt capable of driving runs, but he was often too ponderous to really grab a game by the scruff of its neck.
Under Tuchel, that may have changed.
"We decided to put Ruben because we were aware of their high pressing in midfield but we still wanted to go through midfield," the Chelsea head coach explained. "Ruben and Kova [Mateo Kovacic] can not only pass but drive with the ball to escape the press. That is the reason we picked them."
The Blues boss wants the best from Loftus-Cheek and when he threatened to ponder or play safe, Tuchel's shouts were to encourage him to turn and play forwards.
Where as Loftus-Cheek's play under Parker often had to be rigid and formulaic as the Cottagers tried to be secure defensively, the England international is allowed a degree of freedom in a team of stars. At Fulham, there was expectation only. That has been key to his selection against Southampton.
"Most important is that I feel Ruben and Ross at the moment feel no pressure," said Tuchel. "They are happy to have these chances, to feel the support, and perhaps six weeks ago they couldn't have imagined they were in the situation to get real minutes, important minutes.
"So they can help us because they have this kind of positive spirit and they didn't feel the pressure. In the last two games, of course, we lost and we felt something was lacking."
A year ago Loftus-Cheek had cascaded down Chelsea's pecking order and made the trip down the road to Craven Cottage. He may not have played much more football than by this stage last season, but his trajectory at Chelsea is in a much different position.
Despite his lack of minutes, a full pre-season will have allowed for him to reach his physical best. An uncertain future in August might have slowed some progress, but freed from pressure Loftus-Cheek has been found to offer something Chelsea lack.
They have quality in midfield in the likes of Jorginho, Kante and Mateo Kovacic, but have missed a connection between midfield and attack. When Tuchel knows the time is right, he won't be afraid to utilise Loftus-Cheek's strengths and encourage them