When Thomas Tuchel first told Ruben Loftus-Cheek he could play him at right-back, the midfielder couldn’t help but laugh.
Loftus-Cheek had just returned to Chelsea for pre-season in the summer of 2021 after a season-long loan at Fulham and was just getting to know Tuchel, who was sacked by Chelsea in September this year.
Although faced with the daunting prospect of trying to break into a side that had just beaten Man City 1-0 to win the Champions League, Loftus-Cheek was skeptical of his manager’s idea.
“Rear wing?!” he replied, almost waiting for his new boss to tell him that it was all a prank.
But the “gotcha” moment never came. “Yeah, I think that would be good,” Tuchel said.
The imposing silhouette and the large frame of Loftus-Cheek are not exactly the attributes of the archetypal rear fender. He had spent most of his career as an attacking or box-to-box midfielder.
“I didn’t know what to think about it,” Loftus-Cheek tells exclusively sky sports ahead of Chelsea’s trip to Newcastle on Saturday night football. “He talked about it and I laughed.
“I had never played defense in my professional career.”
He had sometimes played widely earlier in his career, but only with an offensive mission. It was something completely foreign to him.
Loftus-Cheek was still finding his feet after 13 months out with injury when Tuchel floated the idea. He had suffered a ruptured Achilles in May 2019 during a post-season friendly in America against New England Revolution. Untimely doesn’t even begin to describe the reverse.
The previous season, Loftus-Cheek had thrived under Maurizio Sarri, playing an important role in the club’s successful Europa League campaign, following a loan spell at Crystal Palace the previous year which earned him a place in the English side of the World Cup 2018.
The injury was so severe that Loftus-Cheek had to learn to walk again. Even when he returned to action with Fulham, the midfielder explains, “it took another year to get back into shape and feel good”.
“You never think you have a big injury like that,” he says sky sports. “It was just two years where I just had to be mentally strong and stay positive, which is really difficult. It was a very difficult time.
Such was the severity of the injury, Loftus-Cheek wondered what else he could offer Chelsea.
“I didn’t know what to think,” he adds, “because I’ve never had an injury like this. All your weight goes through the Achilles tendon. That’s where the stiffness comes from, power, which is my game.”
“If I didn’t have the power, then what can I bring?”
Loftus-Cheek’s loan spell at Fulham was not a success. He had gotten the playing time he needed, amassing 30 Premier League appearances, but the Cottagers had been relegated.
There was talk Loftus-Cheek could be moved on, but Tuchel gave him the chance to prove himself. However, he didn’t test his theory on the midfielder’s new position until the spring.
Tuchel deployed Loftus-Cheek, for the most part, in a deep midfield role during the 2021/22 season. But the German still didn’t fully trust him in big games, allowing him just one start against the best opponent until his stance changed almost eight months into the season.
When the time finally came for Tuchel’s experiment, Loftus-Cheek had an instant impact. He contributed two goals as Chelsea beat Southampton 6-0 in April just days before a monumental Champions League quarter-final comeback at Real Madrid.
Tuchel stayed with him at the Bernabeu as Chelsea won 3-2 on the night but was sent off by the eventual winners of the competition after an extra-time header from Karim Benzema, losing 5-4 on aggregate. Loftus-Cheek was again involved in a sweeping move that led to Mason Mount’s opener.
The change in position gave Loftus-Cheek tons of room to ride. All his hard work during rehabilitation to regain his power after the injury paid off.
“In the modern game, wingers have a lot of influence in the final third,” Loftus-Cheek says of his newly adopted role. “He’s not like a real defender. He’s like a hybrid – he can attack and defend.”
“I played there and I played well,” he added.
He may have been part of the backline, but Loftus-Cheek had a say in Chelsea’s attack. More than that, he was taking on greater responsibility and getting back to his pre-injury form regardless of his position.
Loftus-Cheek has become a mainstay in Chelsea’s squad this season under Tuchel and his successor Graham Potter – in the central and wide areas – with 13 of 15 games, starting 10 of them.
The 26-year-old, however, argues his best position is in the middle of the park.
“I’m comfortable anywhere on the pitch,” he says, “but I’ve always been a central midfielder. That’s where I can influence the game the most with my physicality, when I am able to go up and down in both boxes.”
Under Potter, Loftus-Cheek spent most of his time in central midfield and proved himself in the engine room. Mason Mount is the only Chelsea player to have run more in the Premier League this season than Loftus-Cheek, who outperforms his team-mates in duels won, fouls won and strikes completed.
Most notable was his performance against Manchester United last month in the 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge. After his manager’s reshuffle to pile the midfield with a diamond, Loftus-Cheek was key to regaining control of the visitors, who had been dominant in the first half.
No Chelsea player has taken more shots or intercepted the ball more than him. He was also the most at-fault player on the pitch against United. The midfielder starts delivering when it counts.
Loftus-Cheek admits he wasn’t sure he could return to the level required to play for Chelsea. “Oh yeah,” he said, “I think you have your doubts, but it’s just important – even when you have your doubts – to keep going.
“Coming back from that I knew it was going to take a long time because I had lost a lot of muscle and that was the hardest part mentally – to keep doing the work.
“I always had to believe that I could come back to the same point. Now I feel really good and better than before the injury. I’m really proud of myself that I was able to come back here.”
Jamie Carragher said famous on Monday night football: “You’re either a failed winger or a failed centre-back. Nobody grows up wanting to be a full-back. Nobody grows up wanting to be a Gary Neville.”
Loftus-Cheek was neither. But his banter with the post was key in restoring his confidence and bringing him back to his best. Loftus-Cheek may not be an all-around winger, but Tuchel’s plan has certainly worked.
Watch Newcastle vs Chelsea on Saturday night footballlive of Sky Sports Premier League, starting at 17h ; kick off 5:30 p.m.