The story so far: Prolific midfielder Lewis Baker has starred for Chelsea’s academy, been promoted by MD Dons and won the KNVB Beker with Vitesse Arnhem. He returns to London after a stunning loan spell in Holland.
“As you start playing more and more games the momentum starts building and the confidence builds, and we’ve started playing like we know we can.” – Lewis Baker, speaking about the English team at the U21 European Championships, June 2017
With the conclusion of his successful second year in Arnhem, Baker once again returned to English shores. Once again, he found himself representing his country as the U21s chased more international success, but unlike one year prior, the outcome was not going to be glorious. Once again, England faced Germany, and once again, England fell victim to the cruel lottery of penalties. Baker, as expected, scored his; however, there is no denying the squad was disappointed, imbued with false hopes that they could triumph for the first time since 2009 at the tournament.
Despite this, Baker’s stock was still very high, even being mentioned in the same breath as Jadon Sancho, as an alternative option to Chelsea splashing the cash. This was, of course, something that Antonio Conte was very keen to do. Various names from Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, to Marco Parolo, to Danny Drinkwater swirled around, as various fansites discussed what they offered that Lewis Baker did not. A new contract for Baker, now aged 22, in August 2017 seemed bizarre. At this point, stability was necessary for progression: be that at Chelsea, or somewhere else.
Instead, the noose of another loan deal was firmly fastened around Baker’s neck. Various Premier League clubs were touted as having in interest in Baker, including Bournemouth and Watford, but instead, Middlesbrough in the Championship was the chosen destination. Still smarting from their relegation from the Premier League, Garry Monk was in charge of The Boro to drive them back to the promised land. The season started slowly, with Baker used sparingly in attacking midfield and as the defensive midfield fulcrum, before a first goal for Boro, against Scunthorpe in the EFL Cup.
Baker excelled over the 90’ in his preferred No. 10 role, and Monk started him against Preston in the league the following matchday. Ironically, just a few days later, Chelsea would splash out £30m on Danny Drinkwater, who on the face of things had a much less successful season than Baker. Would he really recapture the form he showed alongside N’Golo Kante that won Leicester a title?
After a solid showing against Preston, Baker seemed to have cemented himself as the choice creative option for Boro. Despite indifferent form, he continued to play regularly, completing almost every game in September and scoring his first (spoiler: and only) Championship goal against QPR in a thrilling 3-2 win.
Then, after returning to the bench for the match against Brentford, Baker was subbed on for 11’ minutes. After that, he was on the bench against Barnsley.
Then he disappeared from the squad completely. Indifferent, patchy form across the team and a lack of goals seemed to be squarely blamed on his shoulders. Martin Braithwaite and Stewart Downing displaced Baker as ‘chief creative force’. Rumours abounded about a poor attitude in training. Baker didn’t get a chance to prove Monk wrong, however, as the ex-Swansea man was sacked on 23rd December.
He was replaced by Tony Pulis. At this point, alarm bells should of been ringing, both for Baker and for Chelsea. Pulis was renowned for an effective, although not aesthetically pleasing, style of play. A silky no. 10 like Baker was not going to fit in. Despite making it back to the bench for three fixtures over Christmas, Baker was back out the squad afterwards for a spell until mid-February. At this point, Chelsea really should have recalled him. His stock, dropping every week, could have been revitalised if he was finally allowed to sever ties with Chelsea and make a full fresh start elsewhere. Instead, he remained at Middlesbrough. He made two appearances in the rest of the season, amassing a total of 31’ minutes.
The silence and lack of a recall from Chelsea from this doomed loan spell was deafening. If last season was a dream, this season was a nightmare. Now 23, Baker clearly was not in Chelsea’s plans, long or short term, and the length of the new contract seemed ludicrous.
Persona Non Grata
Baker’s return to Chelsea felt like a periphery footnote at the end of the 2017/18 season. Once again, a manager left, and another arrived: Maurizio Sarri, who had treated Nathaniel Chalobah with care and caution when on loan at Napoli several years previously. Once more, before he’d even taken charge, Baker’s fate had been decided again.
A loan deal to Leeds United, under the tutelage of Marcelo Bielsa. The bombastic Argentine was at the helm at Elland Road, and it’s clear to understand why playing under a manager so committed to attacking football would have appealed to Baker, especially after several months out in the cold under Tony Pulis. However, the Whites squad was well-stocked in midfield: Ezgjan Alioski, Mateusz Klich and Kalvin Phillips. All popular fan favourites and well-liked by Bielsa. The main creator was the mercurial Pablo Hernandez, who in all honesty was wasted in the Championship and still could have been playmaking at top level.
Adding in names like Samuel Saiz and Jamie Shackleton, it was hard to see where Baker fitted in. Bielsa seemed to concur. Baker’s appearances were fits and starts, as a substitute. With Leeds doing well, Bielsa was not going to budge from his formula. Baker once more returned to the unwelcome spot on the bench. Any player from Chelsea was going to struggle to impress Leeds fans, and Baker was no different. The glitz and glamour of the Premier League never seemed further away.
In total, Baker made only 5 starts up from August to January 7th, 2019, with only two in the Championship against Bolton, and his next loan destination, Reading FC.
A Pyrrhic Victory
Lewis Baker made his Reading debut as a substitute against Nottingham Forest, once more playing in his preferred attacking midfield role. Although he was rusty, this was understandable – he’d barely kicked a ball competitive in the last 18 months. The biggest relief was to escape the manacles of the bench.
His second appearance and first start was against Frank Lampard’s Derby County, where he was bothered and bewildered by the midfield duo of Mason Mount and Harry Wilson. Perhaps Baker looked at ex-Chelsea youth teammate Mount and wondered what might have been if he’d have been so lucky. Perhaps Mount looked at Baker and considered what his future might be if it went sour. Baker was hooked at half time and returned to the bench for the next match.
Thankfully, this break from football would only last one match. He returned for the next game – a credible 0-0 against Aston Villa led by Tammy Abraham – and started consecutive matches for the first time in over a year when given the nod against Sheffield Wednesday. Baker swapped from his no. 10 role to a slightly deeper midfield position, dovetailing with John Swift, another Chelsea academy old-hand.
A brief substitute appearance against Blackburn aside, the rest of Baker’s season was remarkably steady. Having now cemented himself firmly into the Royals’s preferred first XI, as they battled to avoid the dreaded drop into League 1, Baker began to consistently put in solid performances, swapping between central midfield and defensive midfield, alternating partnerships with Swift, Andy Rinomhota and Liverpool loanee Ovie Ejaria.
If previous managers had criticised Baker’s performances in training and on the pitch for a lack of effort, this loan spell dispelled these notions. He scrapped and battled for every single ball. The creative spark was dulled somewhat by this new survivalist instinct, with Baker’s sole goal for Reading coming in damaging loss away at Hull City, but he did grab a crucial assist against Brentford to claim three points.
In something of a personal pyrrhic victory, Baker started and finished 14 matches in a row from mid-February, to the end of the season, as Reading survived the drop by a comfortable 7 points. However, the good form at Reading did not result in a permanent transfer. Baker was now 24 and his career, so promising just a few years previously had stagnated to a standstill.
Auf Wiedersehen, And Then Back Again
Once again, Lewis Baker returned to Chelsea by 2019/20. Finally time to get him off the books for good and close this sorry chapter? Apparently not. Germany and the Bundesliga beckoned, with promoted Fortuna Dusseldorf. Although this loan seemed totally unnecessary – if Chelsea really wanted to show favour, they could have just let him go for free- there was at least proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Good performances would see Dusseldorf use the relatively cheap buyout clause of £3.5 million and sign the now-forgotten prodigy.
Unfortunately, the tragic odyssey would not have a surprise twist ending. Although Baker started the six of the opening 7 matchdays, Dusseldorf only picked up a paltry four points. Baker unfortunately scored an own goal on his home debut against Bayer Leverkusen. By mid-October, Baker had returned to his growing nemesis, the bench again. More rumours abounded that he was unhappy and not putting effort in for training. Several poorly timed media interviews probably didn’t help. Another start in the hapless 5-0 loss against Borussia Dortmund, a substitute appearance as Dusseldorf were drubbed 3-0 by RB Leipzig. A spot on the bench again for the loss to Augsburg.
What followed was a truly bizarre moment. Before the Bundesliga winter break, Friedhelm Funkel, Dusseldorf manager claimed that Baker had failed to turn up for training and for the matchday squad for the game against Union Berlin. “He’s in London and supposedly sick, I can’t check that. Normally he would have been here. I don’t know what the reason is that he isn’t here.” Coffin, meet the proverbial nail. Baker’s fate was sealed from that moment and on January 22nd, Dusseldorf cut the loan with “immediate effect.”
Unsurprisingly, Baker did not return to the first team Chelsea squad after this latest loan mishap. Another season seems destined to drift towards oblivion, even without the added terror of coronavirus disrupting football.
The Final Word
Lewis Baker’s career to date is, without a doubt, a what-might-have-been. Interestingly, it exposes a number of key questions that we can’t answer: did the player really have attitude problems and not apply themselves when not first choice? Should Baker have ever been allowed to go on loan after those two stunning seasons at Vitesse, when surely he would have offered the same, if not more than Danny Drinkwater? At what point should Chelsea have severed ties, and accepted that it was not to be, rather than extending contracts and shoehorning in loan deals?
No one would deny that Lewis Baker is a fantastically talented footballer, when he is fit and focused. His time at Vitesse shows he can be a key component of a side that compete effectively in one of the top European leagues and even with his chequered appearance record across the seven loan spells, Baker still amazingly averages one goal every six appearances which is remarkable, considering the number of substitute appearances in that run. A element of blame must be attributed to the player for not making the most of this ability, whatever the circumstances.
Sadly, a portion of the blame must also be attributed to the club. In their efforts to search for a great hope for the academy and a new poster-boy to take the mantle off John Terry, a number of careers have been twisted around and about in an effort to get a breakthrough. The fact Baker was loaned to the same league four times and never really managed to crack it should be a warning sign – some players are not cut out for certain environments.
It seems that after the second season at Vitesse, Baker was viewed as a side-note, rather than a potential first team option for Chelsea. To me, this is the biggest disappointment. The player had a sensational year in Arnhem and should have been rewarded with a chance. To send him on loan and then sign Danny Drinkwater just a few weeks later, for a hugely inflated fee is atypical of the disjointed transfer policy that typified that summer window. The fact Nathaniel Chalobah had also been let go in this period is another puzzling question. Seeing this must have crushed Baker and some of the burning spirit and passion for the game was no doubt dampened by this bizarre decision-making.
In another reality, perhaps Lewis Baker is a key component of the Chelsea squad, adored by the SW6 faithful on the same pantheon as Ruben Loftus-Cheek. For now, despite his contract having two and half years left, Chelsea need to do the right thing and let Baker move on to a permanent new pasture, where he can rebuild his career.
Whatever his aspirations are in football, he is now aged twenty-five and time is starting to run out. For the odyssey to be worth it, the epic treasure at the end of the quest needs to be reached. At the moment, it is stuck in a sad, and endless interlude of loan spells. Only the future will dictate if Lewis Baker’s career ends in glory, or in obscurity and ignominy.
Odyssey (Od-ys-seys): Noun, Plural – a long series of wanderings or adventures, especially when filled with notable experiences, hardships, etc.
Edited by: Dan