The story so far: Prodigious talent Lewis Baker has starred as Chelsea have won every domestic youth trophy. A loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday has not worked out, but Baker has instead won promotion to the Championship with MK Dons.
“Everybody’s done their part. The team spirit and the togetherness they have is incredible” – Lewis Baker, after sealing MK Dons promotion to the Championship, 2015
Turning Vitesse Blue – Part 1: Stability, Switcharoos and Stunners
Although Karl Robinson and MK Dons would quite happily have taken Baker back to Stadium MK for their debut campaign in the Championship, all the more so considering that the fellow midfield cog Dele Alli had now joined Tottenham permanently, Chelsea had other ideas.
Perhaps fearful of MK struggling and Baker being shelved in favour of graft and experience, or perhaps simply keen to see how Baker would adapt to European football. Vitesse Arnhem’s links to Chelsea at the time were well-documented, and with the added caveat of potential European football, as FC Hollywood at the Rhine had successfully reached the Europa League qualifiers, it was easy to see why they were an attractive proposition. Around this time he was promoted to the U21 England team as well.
Baker headed out to Arnhem with four other Chelsea players – fellow English youth stars Izzy Brown and Dominic Solanke, Serbian midfielder Danilo Pantic and the Brazilian Nathan. The club’s European adventure was over before the season began properly – a 5-0 drubbing on aggregate to Southampton was compounded with Baker directly giving the ball straight to Shane Long (perennial enemy of Chelsea fans for his habit of raising his game against us) to score the third at St Mary’s.
However, his Eredivisie campaign started with a respectable 90 minutes against Willem II, and then dispatching a penalty in his first home appearance at GelreDome. Baker had cemented himself as a key piece in the starting XI, unlike the other loan players and he completed 80+ minutes in 12 of the opening 13 matchdays, creating and scoring 6 goals in total in the process.
However, the following four matchdays saw Baker play just 46’ minutes in total as Vitesse stuttered and off-the-field issues affected on field performance. With Vitesse riding high in 5th, Peter Bosz left unexpectedly to manage Maccabi Tel Aviv and replacement Rob Maas left Baker on the bench for matchdays against SC Cambuur and Excelsior. Baker also only made brief substitute appearances against Ajax and PEC Zwolle, as inconsistent performances plagued the Arnhem club. Was another loan about to be cut short in January?
Fate this time smiled kindly on Baker as he returned to the starting XI in the next match. In the derby against De Graafschap at the end of February, Baker would cement his position as a fan favourite for the Black and Yellows. With the team trailing 2-1 to their fierce rivals in the Gelderse Derby, the ball found it’s way to Baker on the 83rd minute mark. Around 30 yards out, he took a single touch to set himself before nonchalantly and effortlessly sweeping the ball into the top far right corner of the net. The goalkeeper literally, could only stand and watch. It’s testament to Baker’s competitiveness: rather than celebrating wildly, he was keen on restarting the match to snatch a winner.
To no-one’s surprise, this goal would eventually win the goal of the season award for Vitesse. After this wonder-strike, Maas had no choice but to accept Baker as a key part of his plans and Baker played the 70’+ minutes for the next six matches; this run ended with him grabbing an assist against ADO Den Haag. The week before, Baker had been setting a league record for number of chances created in a single Eredivisie match when Vitesse played away at NEC Nijmegen. Despite Baker’s outstanding performance, which included a sublime free kick, his team still lost 2-1.
With Vitesse now mired in midtable and not in contention for European football, Maas once again decided to tinker with the line-ups and Baker was back on the bench. He played 90’ once in the final four matches of the season, ending the season with a respectable five goals, four assists and 31 appearances, totalling 2,085 minutes. Out of the five names that had started the season in Holland, Baker had by far amassed the most credit in the bank.
There was a certain irony too, as whilst he had been impressing as a creative force in the midfield for Arnhem, Chelsea had been crying out for that sort of spontaneity as they finished mid-table in the Premier League after Jose Mourinho’s sacking.
Turning Vitesse Blue – Part 2: The Loan of Legend
Even before Antonio Conte had even officially begun his job at Chelsea, it was clear Baker was not going to get a chance to shine. The worst-kept secret in football was formally confirmed in June, the twenty-one year old was spending another year at Vitesse on loan. Baker was not the only Chelsea player returning for another year on Dutch soil, with Vitas choosing to also renew Nathan’s loan, and also taking American Matt Miazga to Holland for the season.
Before this, however, there was the small matter of the prestigious Toulon Tournament taking place in May. Baker started in three matches of the tournament and came on at half time in his other appearance, replacing fellow Chelsea star Ruben Loftus-Cheek. This was arguably Baker’s finest hour at International Youth level. Looking a cut above a number of players, and showing maturity beyond his 21 years, Baker scored four times and collected one assist, including an immaculately timed header in the final against France.
His exploits earned him the Golden Ball, and once again, pundits speculated why on earth he wasn’t getting a chance in the Premier League. After all, teammate Ruben Loftus-Cheek, not sent out on loan from Chelsea was named Player of the Tournament and his performances had been comparable to Baker’s.
In his second Eredivisie campaign, Baker was now a firm fan favourite for his perchant for the spectacular, and for his goal against De Grafschaap the previous year. Newly appointed SBV manager Henk Fraser saw Baker as critical to his plans, playing him in central midfield alongside the more defensive Marvellous Nakamba, which in turn allowed the Englishman to drive forward and support Valeri Qazaishvili on counter-attacks and when Vitesse were dominating games. Baker started the first three matchdays and opened his account in the second loan season by scoring against Roda JC. In a style that was becoming typical for him, Baker burst into the box beyond the striker, and took advantage of a fortunate bounce, confidently steering the ball in at the near post. He grabbed his second goal and two assists in 2-7 victory over De Dijk in the KNVB Beker.
His goalscoring continued in an impressive streak in September and October, as he scored in four consecutive matches for the first time in his career. Left foot. Right foot. Two free kicks. It was apparent that any team that dared to give Baker time and space within thirty yards of goal, or conceded a cheap set piece to him did so at their peril. Baker grabbed another cup goal against RKC Waalwijk in late October and by this point, fans were no longer asking if Baker should be starting matches, but rather wondering what happened he was not available. Early Christmas gifts to the Airborne Club fans came as Baker scored against PEC Zwolle, and against Jodan Boys in the Last 16 of the Beker.
His run of completing league matches, which started in the final week of August came to an abrupt end against FC Twente in January 2017 – having scored in the 3-1 victory with another Frank Lampard-eqsue goal, powering in a bouncing ball from just behind the penalty spot after making a late driving run forward, he tarnished his copybook by receiving a first professional red card for a cynical kick-out.
A suspension later, he redeemed himself to fans by assisting a crucial goal in the KNVB Beker Quarter Finals, this time knocking out Dutch giants Feyenoord. Baker also scored on his first league outing post-red-card. against AZ Alkmaar, curling home a strike from just outside the box. It was approaching transfer deadline day and there was some suggestions that Baker would return to Chelsea. This speculation was unsurprisingly unfounded – Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were riding high at the top of the Premier League and even senior players like Cesc Fabregas were struggling for consistent minutes thanks to the form of Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante. There was no point in Baker returning to warm the bench, or not feature at all. At twenty-one years of age, he needed to be playing.
Now a star turn in the Vitesse side, who were punching above their natural weights to compete at the top of the Eredivisie, Baker was in his element. The tighter midfield three, which now used Nakamba as more traditional defensive midfielder, pushed Baker up the pitch so he could truly play a box-to-box role and his dynamism, passing and long range shooting continued to cause havoc. With the pace of Milot Rashica and Navarone Foor on counters, Vitesse could always rely on Baker to pick the appropriate out-ball to turn defence into attack. The other benefit of Baker being slightly further forward was that Vitesse could take more advantage of his uncanny ability to produce accurate crosses on either foot from either flank.
The No. 34 played 90 minutes for 11 of the fourteen remaining matchdays, and never played less than 65 minutes, even when he didn’t complete the full game. Baker as a creative force became more prevalent in this period, as he created a four goals from his teammates, from a variety of open-play and dead-ball situations. However, Baker’s finest hour in a Vitesse shirt was not in the league.
On March 1st, 2017, Vitesse took on Sparta Rotterdam for a spot in the KNVB Beker Final. Vitesse Arnhem, unlike Baker himself, had never lifted any silverware in the club’s 125 year history. Baker, having scored or assisted in every round to that point began a one-man crusade to get his team to the final. Thirteen minutes in, and a short corner routine fed the ball to him 20-odd yards out. Driving the ball low and with a slight curl from his left boot, the strike traveled with the precision of an arrow, catching out the Rotterdam goalkeeper. Relief.
To seal the deal on the 73rd minute, he played a neat one-two with Rashica, before calmly side-footing a driven low strike, this time with his right boot into the corner. Even an own goal from captain Guram Kashia could not deny Arnhem a fourth shot at the trophy.
Fourth time was indeed the charm for Vitesse, as they triumphed 2-0 over AZ Alkmaar. Although Baker did not contribute to a goal in the final, he played the full game and showed a graft and grit seldom required in Chelsea’s dominant youth teams. Having just turned 22 days beforehand, the boy had very much now become a man. Baker’s time in Holland was coming to an end and he started his final game for Vitas against Roda JC on 14th May, just two days after his parent club had confirmed the Premier League title away at West Brom. Although Vitesse were only finishing fifth, this was an equally lauded achievement considering the resources and size of the club in comparison to other big hitters in the Eredivisie. Baker signed off in impressive fashion, with a goal and assist against Roda JC. The first goal was comical as Baker squared the ball to Ricky Van Wolfwinkel for the easiest tap-in of his career, before the talented Englishman collected a pass from Rashica and impudently lobbed the keeper. The roar from the crowd signified Baker’s popularity at GelreDome. If there was such thing as a legendary loan season, this was it.
Baker made thirty-nine appearances for Arnhem, scoring fifteen times and grabbing seven assists in 3,430 minutes. On average, he contributed to a goal just over every 1.5 matches.
Was it finally the time for a chance in the first team?
Click here: The story of Lewis Baker Part 1.
Next time: The concluding part of Lewis Baker’s football journey. Sadly, we’ve passed the high point to date.
Edited by: Dan