LONDON — Maurizio Sarri admitted that he is finding Chelsea’s large first-team squad a “problem” after Ruben Loftus-Cheek staked a compelling claim for a regular starting spot with a hat trick in Thursday’s 3-1 win over BATE Borisov in the Europa League.
Loftus-Cheek, making only his second start of the season, netted twice in the first half and once in the second from midfield to the delight of Stamford Bridge, becoming the first Chelsea academy player to score a hat trick for the senior side since Clive Walker in 1982.
Chelsea delivered a convincing performance despite Sarri making eight changes to the team that drew with Manchester United, as many of the players frustrated on the fringes of his squad were handed rare starts.
Andreas Christensen, Gary Cahill, Victor Moses and Loftus-Cheek could all seek moves away from Stamford Bridge in January if they are not afforded more minutes, but Sarri is not convinced he will be able to satisfy everyone.
Asked about Loftus-Cheek’s performance, Sarri replied: “He is a very good player, of course, but I have a little problem. I have to put 11 players in the starting XI, but I have 28 players! This little problem, I don’t know how to solve it. Ask to play 16, 17?”
Sarri is particularly spoilt for choice in midfield, where Jorginho and N’Golo Kante appear entrenched as starters with a rejuvenated Ross Barkley, Mateo Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek all competing for the third and final spot.
“At the moment we have four midfielders for two positions,” the Italian explained. “Three of them with the same characteristics. Only Kante is a defensive midfielder. It’s very difficult for me to put in the starting XI two [such] offensive midfielders at the same time.
“I hope to be able to do it in the future, but I need the cooperation of the players. I need an improvement in the defensive phase… In the future I may be able to put [Ross] Barkley and Loftus in the same starting XI.”
Sarri has repeatedly challenged Loftus-Cheek to improve his tactical awareness if he wants to force his way into the Chelsea starting side, but the Italian was effusive in his praise of the 22-year-old’s attacking performance against BATE.
“He played very, very well,” Sarri said of Loftus-Cheek. “In the offensive phase wonderful. I told him at the beginning of the season I thought he was really a very good player. Now I think the same, but now he’s now more suitable to my football.
“He’s improving. He needs to improve in the defensive phase, but it’s not only Loftus.
“I know that the fans love him, of course. He was in the academy so that’s normal. My problem remains the same.
“It’s very difficult to solve the tactical problem without an improvement in the defensive phase with these three midfielders. We can try and we will work, but I need the cooperation of the players.”