Thomas Tuchel has always been a puzzle-solver. One early interview lists his chief hobby as “an interest in furniture design”. A famous long afternoon with Pep Guardiola spent furiously shuffling pepper pots around a Munich restaurant table has already passed into modern managerial lore.
On a boisterous afternoon in west London there was more evidence of exactly how that restless brain has set to work on a footballer who might qualify as the most bafflingly underexplored all-round talent in England. How do you solve a puzzle like Ruben Loftus-Cheek? And will Chelsea really have the patience to find out?
Édouard Mendy was man of the match at the Brentford Community Stadium, a measure of how well Brentford played to dominate the second half. From the flying fingertip save at the death to his expert command of the aerial assault, Mendy was brilliant, the key element in preserving Chelsea’s 1-0 lead. It felt like a steal by the end. Not that the Chelsea players were in any way penitent. Defenders love winning these games. Mendy looked absolutely thrilled as he jogged across to wave to the travelling support.
It felt like a long way off at that point but victory had been set up by Chelsea’s best spell of the game, a first half in which Loftus‑Cheek, The Tuchel Reboot, was magnificent in central midfield.
At the final whistle Loftus‑Cheek looked utterly shattered, drained by a second half spent chasing and harrying. But he will still rack this up as a significant date in his Chelsea career. Over 90 minutes he touched the ball 100 times, more than any other player on the pitch. He dribbled more than any other Chelsea player, was fouled most, made more tackles and interceptions than any other midfielder and completed 91% of his passes.
In a Chelsea team that still looks like a series of spinning plates all over the pitch, there was an extended glimpse here of those “special” qualities Tuchel has spoken about, and which make Loftus-Cheek such a fascinating, 6ft 3in butterfly of a footballer.
The Community Stadium is a bijou urban ground, crammed in between rows of craning steel and glass apartment towers. There was an authentic crackle in the air at kick-off, given some extra edge by the selection of a Chelsea lineup with some junior links. This season five academy players have been regular starters, with Loftus-Cheek perhaps the most fascinating of them, if only because he still seems so underdone, a grand talent half‑glimpsed.
Here he started as a deep, playmaking central midfielder, with N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovacic either side. It is a delicious role for any footballer. Off you go then, Ruben. Run this game for us.
And why not? On the tale of the tape this is a player with everything: dribbling skills, passing range, driving power. And yet this was just his 59th league start in seven years, too much of which has been spent veering elegantly around the main action. It has been a career that feels like an endless teaser campaign for a product that may or may not end up actually rolling into the shops.
Serious injury hasn’t helped, although his successful return speaks to his heart for the battle. And early on there were three touches that shimmered with quality. First Loftus-Cheek took the ball in a deep defensive position and just bounced Sergi Canós off with a dip of the shoulder.
Moments later, reading the currents, he intercepted 40 yards from the Brentford goal, the kind of turnover Tuchel drools over in his analysis bunker, and then produced a winger’s switch of feet to beat his man.
The game was two minutes old. Loftus-Cheek had already done his Loftus-Cheek thing, announcing himself as the complete package, as a footballer of sublime basic gifts. Now: just keep going.
Brentford had a fine spell and really should have opened the scoring. They generate a wonderful, surging energy through the midfield. It must be exhausting to play against. Loftus-Cheek found himself whirling around. But he was dogged too. He pressed back and stole the ball.
He was also fouled a lot, but then he presents such a tempting target with his ease on the ball, his bravery in tight possession. Towards half-time he was barged over yet again and got to his feet slowly. There will be a lot of this stuff if he is to succeed in the boiler room.
Three minutes before the break Chelsea scored a well-made goal. The final touch before Ben Chilwell’s wonderful spanked finish was a deflection off Pontus Jansson, but it was a neat move to get the ball there, Loftus-Cheek feeding César Azpilicueta and a neat triangle of passes creating room for a cross.
The second half was all Brentford. It remains a mystery how they failed to score. And Loftus‑Cheek did fade, like every Chelsea player.
There is a brittleness to this. It is such a rare thing to reinvent a footballer at this level. Central midfield is such a specialist position. Can you really just glide into it at this level? That tantalising first half will be the bar to aim for; the second a measure of just how hard this is going to be.