Following Chelsea’s first defeat of the season at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur, a rare opportunity has opened up for players to make their case for the starting eleven.
Even from his time at Napoli, Sarri doesn’t like to rotate his core starting eleven too much, and we’ve seen that so far at Stamford Bridge with only Willian/Pedro consistently changing.
The other position that has seen some slight change is the left hand side of midfield. Jorginho and Kante both seem set in stone as far as Sarri is concerned. Jorginho is Sarri on the pitch and ‘sarrismo’ just doesn’t function when Jorginho isn’t functioning, as we saw in the games against Everton and Tottenham.
As for Kante, his new advanced role is receiving lots of attention, but our first goal against Fulham is ‘sarrismo’ in action. Win the ball high up the pitch and move it quickly to score. Kante is still producing some amazing numbers even in an unfamiliar position.
But the position on the left, which has so far been mainly occupied by Matteo Kovacic, is up for grabs.
At current, there’s a three way battle, with Loftus-Cheek and Barkley also vying for Sarri’s attention. That attention has shifted between the two as the replacement for Kovacic during games, with both players providing more physicality and attacking prowess than the Croatian.
I’m a big fan of Kovacic, he’s a very intelligent player who perhaps understands more about where to position himself without the ball, which has seen him become one of Sarri’s main men.
But with Jorginho and Kante also in midfield, we need somebody in that position who can contribute in terms of goals and assists and that is the one thing missing from Kovacic’s game.
Both Loftus-Cheek and Barkley have shown they can provide this during their respective stints in the side.
Back in October, Barkley became the first Englishman since Lampard to score a goal in three consecutive games, with goals against Southampton, Manchester United and Burnley.
While Loftus-Cheek became the first Englishman since Lampard to score a hat trick for Chelsea when he netted three in the Europa League against BATE at Stamford Bridge.
However, the return fixture saw both Barkley and Loftus-Cheek employed in the same midfield.
Chelsea eventually won the game 1-0, but in a performance that lacked any fluidity, with both midfielders struggling to be involved.
The performance saw Kovacic thrust back in the next three Premier League games against Everton, Tottenham and Fulham. Barkley replaced him against Everton and Tottenham but failed to make any real impact. While Loftus-Cheek who provided a man of the match performance in the Europa League game against Vidi, replaced Kovacic against Fulham and got himself on the score sheet.
Those performances have lead to some high praise from Sarri, who said “I think he played very well in the Europa League and I was very happy with him because he played very well from the tactical point of view. “It was not a problem for me to put him on from the bench, I was sure about his impact on the match.”
It shows how tough it’s going to be for Loftus-Cheek and to some extent Barkley to really break in to that starting XI. They can’t just be good, they need to be excellent in every moment of the game. Both of them need to show Sarri that he doesn’t need to sign Kovacic on a permanent basis this summer and that they will be ready.
It’s perhaps the extra pressure that the academy players feel. The club are well documented that they don’t see their academy players as fully developed until the age of 23. Kovacic was just 16 when he made his first team debut at Dinamo Zagreb, 19 when he signed for Inter Milan and 21 when Real Madrid came calling. He’s made 208 first team appearances at the age of 24. Loftus-Cheek, now 22, has just 50 first team appearances to his name.
The relatively new trend of young Englishmen going abroad to get first team football will only become more popular, but for Loftus-Cheek that boat has sailed.
It’s a case of now or never for Ruben as a Chelsea player. Which is why, when opportunity knocks, he needs to take them with both hands. To prove that, like he showed at Crystal Palace, he’s a Premier League player, and that he’s a Chelsea player.