Following the news brought by Paul Fraser of the Northern Echo late Wednesday night that Boro look to have secured the services of Chelsea player Lewis Baker on a 2-year loan deal. Amidst widespread praise from Boro fans for the move (highly unusual in itself!) and a fair amount of disappointment - bordering on anger - from the Chelsea side, here I take a quick look at what Boro fans can expect from the England U21 international.
“My conscience tells me that if, for example, Baker is not in the national team in a few years, I should blame myself. They are a part of a process the club (Chelsea) started without me. In this moment, we have players who will be Chelsea players. And when they become Chelsea players, they will become England players, almost for sure” - Jose Mourinho – 29/07/2014
Lewis Baker was part of a Chelsea PL squad this year (he did not make an appearance) and did receive a PL winners medal for his contributions, however he is not an England international as prophesised by Mourinho. So what has happened for Baker since, and how has his journey resulted in him landing in Middlesbrough?
Finding his feet
In January 2015, Baker was sent on loan to Sheffield Wednesday – then of the Championship – but was recalled by Chelsea only one month later in February after having made 4 appearances, totalling only 156 minutes of football.
With his parent club seemingly unhappy with his development opportunities at Sheffield Wednesday, he was almost immediately sent back out on loan to MK Dons of League One, where he played under Karl Robinson.
Baker contributed well to a team fighting for automatic promotion, scoring 3 goals and assisting 2 in 12 appearances. Robinson was a fan stating that “he’s very fortunate to have him playing for him” and that he is “one of the hardest working players he’s ever worked with”. Perhaps this is an early inclination as to why Garry Monk is so keen to include him in his Riverside revolution?
Development at Vitesse
Chelsea are known for sending youngsters on loan to the Vitesse Arnhem in the Eredivisie for experience and Baker was no exception. He had improved as a player from his aborted Sheffield Wednesday loan with his time at MK Dons but in June 2015 was sent to Vitesse on a season long loan (his loan was later extended to include the 2016-17 campaign as well).
Baker didn’t exactly start well, gifting the ball to Shane Long in a 3-0 Europa League defeat at St. Mary’s… but it wouldn’t take long for Baker to bounce back playing 90 minutes in the Eredivise against Willem II ten days later on the 9th of August, opening his Vitesse account from the penalty spot 5 days after that in a 3-0 win over Roda JC.
He went on to score 20 times in 73 appearances, adding 11 assists in two years for the Dutch club – some achievement considering he made 54 of his appearances from a position defined as central midfield (not a #10). He averages a goal every 3 games from central midfield but has a better than 1 in 4 record as an attacking midfielder and oddly, an almost 1 goal every 2 games from defensive midfield. He is most used to playing in a 3 man midfield but one thing is clear reading through his appearance, assist and goal stats: he is incredibly versatile and effective in any position in the middle of the park.
A few other points of note from his Vitesse days: firstly; his strike in the Gelderse derby against De Graafschap in February 2016 was voted Vitesse’s goal of the year (he is liable to a screamer, check out the Youtube compilation) and secondly; on April 3 of 2016 he set a season record for creative NINE chances in one game, also scoring a pearler of a free-kick from 27 yards. Lastly; he got both goals in the Dutch cup semi-final against Sparta Rotterdam to send Vitesse to their first KNVB cup final in 27 years.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Baker has represented England at under-17, under-19, under-20 & under-21 level, captaining the England Under-20 side for the 2014-15 season.
In 2016, he was part of the England U-21s who travelled to the prestigious Toulon tournament in France, scoring the opening goal in a 2-1 victory over the hosts in the final and securing the Golden Boot award for the competition.
Again his contribution record for the national team makes for positive with 8 goals and 2 assists in 17 games for U21 and 9 goals in 14 for U19s being the standouts.
So what are Boro getting?
It’s impossible to not be excited or pleased with this signing, Chelsea fans speak incredibly highly of him as a player and an individual; I have seen one Chelsea fan say that Baker “is the most two-footed player I’ve ever seen” and another say he “is an absolute baller”. He likes the ball at his feet, he scores goals, he creates chances, he performs in big games, he whips a hell of a free-kick (rejoice those concerned about Adam Clayton’s set piece abilities!), his work ethic is incredible…need I really go on?!
There is so much to this player that I could not cover it in any reasonable article length but I’ll finish with this…It was only in December 2016 that The Guardian football named Baker as one of the 10 of the game’s best prospects, in their 10 rising stars to watch in 2017 article (he was joined on this list by Naby Keita and Gabriel Jesus, amongst others) and it is clear, that if Baker fulfils his potential at Middlesbrough, he will comfortably be one of the best players in the league. Anthony Knockaert won Championship Player of the Year last season with 13 goals and 8 assists (he registered a few more by the end) and all I’m saying is, watch that space for Lewis Baker in 2017/18.