Ahead of our FA Cup fifth-round tie at Wolverhampton Wanderers, the official Chelsea website caught up with Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The youngster discusses his appearances in the earlier rounds of this season's campaign and stressed the importance of maintaining a winning habit...
Like the majority of English footballers, Ruben Loftus-Cheek has a soft spot for the FA Cup.
After all, why wouldn’t he? It was in the competition, just over a year ago, the 21-year-old scored his first Chelsea goal in a third-round tie against Scunthorpe United when he swept home a Cesar Azpilicueta cross to seal a 2-0 victory [video below].
This season, it’s in the FA Cup he has been given an opportunity to impress Antonio Conte and, having started against both Peterborough and Brentford, he performed well. Loftus-Cheek looked lively, eager to prove his quality and, reflecting on his performances, he says he was pleased with his impact in the two matches.
‘I played the full 90 minutes against Brentford and over an hour against Peterborough and I was quite happy with how I played, especially considering the situation I’m in where I haven’t had a lot of time on the pitch,’ he tells the official Chelsea website.
‘You try to keep yourself fit through training but it’s not the same, you need match minutes to get that sharpness in your game. You’re at your best when you’re playing games regularly but I just try my hardest when I get a chance and I’m really happy to have played in those games.
‘I should have scored in both matches to be honest, I hit the bar against Brentford and their keeper made a few good saves. Hopefully if I play against Wolves one of them will go in for me.’
Those two matches enabled Loftus-Cheek, who has spent most of his career in midfield, to play in an unfamiliar role for the first time, but it’s one in which he’s looked comfortable.
Operating on the left-hand side of a front three, with Willian on the right and Michy Batshuayi playing through the middle, it’s a position which allowed the youngster to get on the ball, create chances and provide a goalscoring threat.
‘Obviously it’s a more attacking role I have in this formation,’ he says. ‘The midfielders are more defensive, they stay in position and are much disciplined. Playing slightly to the left gives me more freedom and a license to attack.
‘I’ve never even thought about playing in this position. In pre-season I was playing as a striker and now I’ve moved out to the left in a front three. It’s a massive learning curve playing in different positions and it can only help me if I do go back to playing in midfield because I will understand where the left-sided forward needs to be, so hopefully that will help me in the long run.’
Loftus-Cheek, who recently came third in the voting for England Under-21 Player of the Year for 2016, is clearly benefiting from working under the guidance of Conte. His inner belief was boosted early in the new year when the Italian, having been asked about the possibility of the player spending the second half of the season out on loan, spoke about his quality, saying: 'We trust a lot in him. For Ruben, I don’t want this [a loan]. I want him to stay because he’s ready to play for the first team. If he shows me that he wants to play, he knows he plays.'
When asked about Conte’s words, Loftus-Cheek responds: ‘At my age I just want to be playing so for him to say he wanted me to stay gives me confidence that the chances will come, and when they do I just need to make sure I take them.
‘I look to improve and learn as much as I can, and it doesn’t matter to me which position, I’ll always give my best.’
Wolverhampton Wanderers stand between the Blues and a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals as we prepare for our first away game in this season's tournament.
Loftus-Cheek explains why he expects a tough encounter at Molineux against a team which may include former Chelsea Academy product George Saville.
‘When you go away from home it’s always going to be more difficult,’ he says. ‘There are so many previous examples in the FA Cup of lower-league teams getting results against bigger sides. Wolves caused an upset in the last round by winning at Liverpool so we’ll need to be at our best and we've prepared for the game in the same we do for every match.
‘No matter what the competition is, if you keep winning it builds momentum. Winning is a habit, just like losing. If you’re losing matches regularly you really struggle, but if you keep winning it just becomes natural and really builds your confidence. It would be great for us to get into the quarter-finals.
‘George was playing for the Under-21s around the time when I was starting to be put on their bench, so I know him quite well. He’s a really funny guy and it will be good to play against him. He’s a typical, English midfielder who likes to put a tackle in so I expect it will be a good battle.’
In the previous rounds. the relationship between our attacking players proved important in the outcome of the game.
Willian was outstanding against Brentford and opened the scoring with a brilliant free-kick, while the understanding between Loftus-Cheek and Batshuayi, who netted in both games, continued to grow. Having linked up well earlier in the season against Bristol Rovers, Loftus-Cheek teed up the Belgian to score against Peterborough with a cushioned volley.
‘In training the link-up is improving all the time,’ Loftus-Cheek says. ‘I’m getting used to where he likes to run and what he wants to do, and he’s getting used to the positions I take up and how it can benefit the team, so it's been working well.'
The Blues have lifted the trophy on seven separate occasions, most recently in 2012, when Loftus Cheek was just 16. That victory over Liverpool was our fourth triumph in the space of five years and the end of a period in which his earliest FA Cup memories were formed.
‘I just remember that time when Chelsea won it quite regularly and Didier Drogba always seemed to score,’ Loftus-Cheek recalls.
‘There was the game against Man United, and then he scored in the finals against Everton and Portsmouth as well. I also remember him scoring in the semi-finals against Arsenal and Tottenham. He just used to love playing, and scoring, at Wembley.’