Has Crystal Palace's Ruben Loftus-Cheek put himself in contention for World Cup selection?
It was a game that everybody had written off, labelled as just another fixture in what has been a seemingly endless stream of uninspiring and unwanted international matches over the past months.
The tepid nature of England’s recent matches at the end of their European Championship qualifying campaign left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of the country, and as such the frequent nature of international breaks across the past three months has drained most enthusiasm for the Three Lions.
A number of high-profile withdrawals from the squad did little to whet the appetite ahead of a showdown with old foes Germany either, leaving England’s resources depleted against a world-class side.
Yet whilst Friday’s match did little to inspire before kick-off, with many wondering what Gareth Southgate could possibly take from a match that pitted so many debutants against a strong and well-drilled German outfit, one man ensured that any pre-match script was ripped up and abandoned from the off.
The game may have ended goalless but on-loan Crystal Palace midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek truly lit up Wembley Stadium with an expansive display full of potential and flair to turn a fair few heads.
One of three debutants in the starting line-up, the 21-year-old defied any fears of being overawed by the occasion in front of a packed-out home crowd by putting in an individual display that provided a rare sense of excitement in an England shirt, something not felt since Marcus Rashford’s emergence.
If he felt any signs of nervousness ahead of kick-off then it certainly didn’t show on the pitch, taking just 20 minutes to make his first telling impact with a silky Cruyff turn followed by a sublime nutmeg.
It was a move that exuberated confidence and it set the pattern for Loftus-Cheek’s evening.
He nearly earnt himself a debut assist before half-time, setting Jamie Vardy away with the most delicately chipped ball over an advanced German defence, and it deserved a finish from the striker.
As the match went on it became clear that he held the key to unlocking their opponents, being involved in almost everything good about England’s attacking play, creating two chances in a matter of second-half minutes when he found the late runs of Jake Livermore and Eric Dier in imaginative fashion.
However, aside from these moments, his all-round demeanour showed awful amounts of promise, often holding off German midfielders whilst marauding forwards before threading a pass between a gap.
There was one particular occasion inside the final ten minutes when, despite giving his all for 80 minutes of end-to-end football, he still managed to find the energy within him to burst out of defence and put England back on the front foot, drawing in three players before squeezing a pass away.
The way Loftus-Cheek acquitted himself to the task at hand was admirable and he almost played without fear, showing no signs of being weighed down by the shirt as many others have been in recent years.
He showed signs of elegance and trickery yet he utilised all of his 6’3” frame to bully Germany at times, and the decision to award him man of the match was a fully justified and well-received one.
It is certainly no mean feat to make your international bow against the reigning world champions and leave with the accolade of being the best player on the pitch but it was simply testament to how Loftus-Cheek asserted himself onto proceedings, adding tempo to the hosts’ counter-attacking approach.
Speaking post-match, as relayed by BBC Sport, the youngster was delighted by his debut – and rightly so. He said:
“If we won it would have been better but I’m really happy. It was a really tactical game. It was good for us young players and I certainly learned a lot.
“The manager has said do your best. I had Gareth [Southgate] in charge for nearly three years at the Under-21s and the boys have been great. I’ve settled in really well and they gave me a platform to go out and play.”
Loftus-Cheek’s impressive debut could resonate far deeper than just a one-off friendly match though, not least with next year’s World Cup in Russia gradually growing closer on the horizon.
Yet as a nation we have to be careful.
It doesn’t seem like that long ago that a certain someone called Jack Wilshere arrived on the scene at Arsenal before making his England bow and being largely dubbed as the next big British prospect.
Both expectation and injury have significantly stalled his career – almost to the point of no return considering his struggles to get into Arsene Wenger’s side – and it is important not to get too carried away about Loftus-Cheek’s potential despite his very impressive performance against the Germans.
That isn’t to say that he shouldn’t make the World Cup squad though, as based on Friday’s display against one of the best teams in the world the Palace midfielder is ready to take this huge step up.
Addressing thoughts of the World Cup, Loftus-Cheek remained coy, though:
“To go to the World Cup it’s a long season and I still have to improve. I have to keep learning and getting better and hopefully there’s a chance to get on the plane.”
Whilst Loftus-Cheek himself confessed that he needs to continue learning if he harbours any hope of making England’s World Cup squad, supporters alike will pray his development doesn’t stall.
The next step of his England career – after the friendly against Brazil on Tuesday – remains unclear though, with Alli almost certain to return to the fold and reclaim his role as the attacking midfielder.
Loftus-Cheek’s involvement then depends on how prepared Southgate is to move away from his formation used in qualifying and the usage of both Jordan Henderson and Dier – two very defensively-minded players – and whether the ex-Under 21 boss will be bold and drop one of them from his team.
Either way – and even if Loftus-Cheek doesn’t earn a starting berth – his impact as a squad player could be monumental, and there simply aren’t many homegrown players that can match up to him right now.
It’s likely that his competition for a World Cup berth will come in the shape of Wilshere himself, Jake Livermore and fellow debutant against Germany Jack Cork, and there’s nothing about those midfielders that Loftus-Cheek should be concerned about in his fight for a place on the plane to Russia.
Loftus-Cheek’s sudden emergence onto the international scene shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise though as he’s been a rare bright spark in a troublesome start to the year for Crystal Palace.
The 21-year-old has been the player to drive Roy Hodgson’s side forward, creating nine Premier League chances in his nine appearances – a tally only bettered by Yohan Cabaye and Andros Townsend – and his 83% passing accuracy is the highest of anyone to feature eight times or more.
He has also shown his tendency to be penetrative and direct on the ball – as he proved at Wembley Stadium – by completing 23 of 31 take-ons, averaging just less than four direct dribbles each match.
It’s this attacking intent and consistent ability to pull off his daring moves that will excite most, potentially able to add a new box-to-box dimension in England’s midfield that’s long been vacant.
Nobody will argue that he’s far too good to be playing for a relegation-battling side but the concept of regular football until the end of the 2017-18 campaign will only be a good thing in his efforts to make Southgate’s World Cup squad, able to continue progression against top opposition each week.
Loftus-Cheek’s prior relationship with Southgate from their time spent together at Under-21 level will undoubtedly fall into his favour and it’ll be interesting to see how the upcoming months unfold.
It’s seemingly a quintessentially English thing to do when a player impresses on the international scene, to hype them up and set them up for a fall, but something seems different about Loftus-Cheek.
He has the manner of a man that’s been patiently waiting for his chance on both a domestic and national front – after all, he’s only made 30 Premier League appearances over the course of the past four seasons – and during that time he appears to have built up a thoroughly encouraging attitude.
As with anything, time will tell as to whether he has what it takes at the top level. But for now we should all give credit where credit is due, and look forward to the development of a fresh homegrown prodigy.
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