Tuesday 20 November 2018

Loftus-Cheek has attributes to add dimension to England

As Tunisia sit deep, Jordan Henderson (left) has to drop deeper than the three English centre
halves to get on the ball and the options are limited
As Tunisia sit deep, Jordan Henderson (left) has to drop deeper than the three English centre halves to get on the ball and the options are limited
Loftus-Cheek (bottom right) replaces Alli and gives Henderson another option and duly embarks on an attacking run to break the Tunisian line
The run from the substitute leads to a crossing chance and, minutes later, a similar break creates the corner that results in the winning goal
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The World Cup is capable of turning supporting cast members into leading lights. Sometimes, it's just about being in the right place at the right time.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek will not have been overburdened by autograph requests in the build-up to events in Russia.

When England held an open press day before flying out, the scrums centred around the likes of Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Dele Alli.

Loftus-Cheek, 22, has yet to reach the 50-appearance mark at Premier League level so it's hardly surprising that casual observers would struggle to put a name to the face.

That might all change across the course of this competition. An injury to Alli has put Loftus-Cheek in the frame for inclusion against Panama tomorrow, and there's a strong case for involving the Chelsea player even if the entire squad is fully fit.

He made a significant impact off the bench in Monday's win over Tunisia, and has a skill-set that might just make him a big player for England in this competition.

Much has been made of the dynamic squad that Southgate has at his disposal. There is pace in forward areas that offers a different dimension.

Alli and Jesse Lingard offered support to Sterling and Kane on Monday and they were extremely dangerous in the early stages as Tunisia adopted a cavalier approach that allowed England to break.

But the African side learned their lesson and they were a different animal in the second half.

As they put bodies behind the ball, the onus was on England to pick the lock in another way.

Jordan Henderson was given plenty of time on the ball in the first half to ping passes in the direction of the speedsters. Yet he found it harder as the minutes ticked by, and found himself closer to England's back three as they were given the time and space to roam forward but were devoid of ideas.

Alli was inhibited by an injury, and Sterling never looked comfortable. Lingard drifted in and out of the game.

It was the arrival of Loftus-Cheek that gave England another dimension. He's gained significant first-team experience on loan at Crystal Palace this season and he's now a physically imposing midfielder who is comfortable with the ball at his feet.

He's no Steven Gerrard, but he's come along at a time when England are short of energy and invention in the central midfield department.

Loftus-Cheek gave Henderson support by dropping deeper to get on the ball and he then displayed his ability to drive forward towards the area to give the Tunisians something to think about. It was his pressure at the corner flag that forced the mistake which led to Kane's injury-time winner.

One of England's problems in recent tournaments has been the placing of round pegs into square holes in a bid to accommodate their star men.

Wayne Rooney was squeezed into Roy Hodgson's side on the left flank for portions of the aborted 2014 attempt and the team suffered. When Gerrard and Frank Lampard were knocking about, successive managers struggled to get the balance right.

Granted, the pacey attacking players might well benefit England against better opposition if they are willing to take some risks. But they need to establish control in the centre of the park and there was a feeling that Southgate might even bring in Eric Dier as a partner for Jordan Henderson for stiffer tasks.

Loftus-Cheek may get the opportunity tomorrow to argue that he is a better all-round option for knitting the team together, even if it means sacrificing Lingard or Alli for the road ahead.

In a tournament cycle, unlikely stars can emerge.

England v Panama

Where: Nizhny Novgorod Stadium

Capacity: 45,000

When: 1.0, tomorrow, live RTé2 and BBC1

Key stats: England’s last-gasp win over Tunisia was the first time they won an opening game at the World Cup since 2006, where they beat Paraguay 1-0.

  • The victory was also the first time in 10 World Cup games in which England scored two or more goals, since a 2-2 draw against Sweden in 2006.
  • Panama suffered a 3-0 loss to Belgium in their first ever World Cup match, picking up five yellow cards – the most by a team in a World Cup game since the Netherlands in the final of the 2010 edition against Spain.

Irish Independent

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