Appearances (starts + substitute):
Dutch Eredivisie - 33 + 0 (2907 minutes)
KNVB Beker - 6 + 0 (523 minutes)
Goals + Assists:
Dutch Eredivisie - 10 + 4
KNVB Beker - 5 + 3
(Note: Throughout this article, ‘assists’ also include assisting own goals and winning penalties that are successfully converted)
After short-term domestic loans to Sheffield Wednesday and promotion-winning MK Dons, Lewis Baker was farmed out to Vitesse Arnhem at the beginning of last season. While the Eredivisie is not a league that is considered among the top five in Europe, it is of a good enough level to be important for a young player’s development and tactical education. This is probably why, year after year, Chelsea send groups of youngsters to Arnhem; while it is not exactly the required step to bridge the gap between youth football and playing for Chelsea’s first-team, it is more than a suitable stepping stone out of the youth game. Lewis Baker showed flashes of his brilliance in a satisfactory first season at Vitesse, but it was widely accepted that he was capable of a great deal more. Stability was key at that point in his career, and after even being advised by the players and staff at Vitesse to stay an additional year, his loan was renewed for the 2016-17 season.
His second season at Vitesse was always going to be vital. Now that Baker was going to remain in a stable environment and presumably start regularly, he was expected to increase his influence and output. It’s safe to say that the 22-year-old did not disappoint, playing a key role as the club finished fifth and won the first major trophy in their history, the KNVB Beker.
In both of his seasons at Vitesse, Baker played in a typically Dutch 4-3-3 formation. Under Peter Bosz in his first season, he played as a deep-lying playmaker or a box-to-box midfielder and saw more of the ball than he did during his second season, when he was given a more outright attacking role. Baker played a lot more in his second season (almost 900 minutes more in the league), and was a mainstay in the starting XI; the only game he didn’t start was due to a red card suspension. Let’s compare Baker’s numbers over the two seasons.
While his chances created and key pass numbers per-90 seem to be much greater on the face of it, that is likely due to the fact that he had a lot more substitute appearances and less 90-minute spells completed last season, and also that he was assigned to most set pieces and created many chances in that manner, unlike this season. Another factor to be considered is that this season, he hadn’t been the main creative outlet. Manager Henk Fraser, who was appointed last summer, preferred a much more wing-oriented style of play and hence more often than not, the ball would be played out wide to the likes of Adnane Tighadouini and Milot Rashica. As the numbers suggest, Baker had been more fearless with the ball this season when it came to attempts on goal, especially from outside the area. With regards to attempts on goal from outside the box, Baker averaged 1.9 per 90 minutes, which was seventh highest in the league. Among all central midfielders, he ranked third in attempts on goal overall, with only Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech and Dirk Kuyt shooting more. While Baker’s overall play in terms of tackles, interceptions, aerials won and take-ons looks to have come some way from last season, it’s still where he needs to improve the most.
To put things into perspective, let’s compare his aforementioned statistics with that of Cesc Fàbregas from 2009-10, which was his breakout season at Arsenal, at the age of 22. Whether Baker is better off the ball than Fabregas is a question that is asked a lot, and I find that their roles are more comparable when looking at Cesc’s time at Arsenal. Fàbregas averaged 3.7 attempted tackles per game, as opposed to Baker’s 1.6, while their interception numbers are almost the same (1.1 vs 1.2). Baker leads the way in terms of blocks, with 0.8 (including 0.6 passes blocked) as compared to Fabregas’ 0.3 (with 0 passes blocked), while he was also dispossessed less often (1.2) than Fàbregas (3). Lastly, they were both, more or less equally good (or bad) when it came to aerial duels, with Baker winning 0.6 out of 1.3, and Fabregas winning 0.5 out of 1.4. Yes, they were playing in vastly different teams and leagues but the purpose of this comparison is to get a rough idea where Baker stands in areas that aren’t necessarily his strengths. While Fàbregas just edges it, there’s not a lot between the two and more regular playing time should help Baker improve even further.
As far as scoring contribution goes, Baker averaged a goal or an assist every 155 minutes in all competitions, and every 207 minutes in the Eredivisie. Attacking midfielders from the top Eredvisie teams are far better in this regard though, with the likes of Hakim Ziyech (Ajax, 125), Davy Klaassen (Ajax, 118.7) and Marco van Ginkel (PSV, 115) boasting ridiculously high numbers in the Eredivisie. Again, for perspective, Marco van Ginkel either scored or assisted a goal every 152 minutes in the KNVB Beker and Eredvisie in the 2012-13 season at Vitesse, which ultimately led to Chelsea signing him. Van Ginkel was a year younger than Baker at the time, although in an arguably stronger team overall.
While Baker is easily one of the best midfielders aged 21 and under in the Eredivisie to have played most of the season, the aforementioned midfielders from the likes of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV — i.e. the top teams in the league — registered better numbers, at least in terms of goalscoring contribution. Here’s a more overall comparison for a better picture.
Finally, here’s a compilation video of all of Baker’s Vitesse goals this season.
The above video shows one part of what Baker can add to a team. He’s a threat from set-pieces and is a potent threat on goal, in a somewhat similar fashion to one Frank Lampard. He also offers a lot of creativity, while effortlessly keeping the ball ticking over in midfield. Additional work on the defensive aspect of his game would make him quite a force to reckon with.
Baker is well capable of registering even better numbers in the Eredivisie with Vitesse next season but it’s time that he began challenging himself at a higher level, and also preferably in a better system. He’s done well in his two years at Vitesse and could probably play a depth role at Chelsea if needed but what he really needs now is one more year on loan at a higher level. Hence, my verdict is loan.
As far as Premier League destinations go, they’re largely limited. One of the smaller teams such as Brighton could be looked at, but Baker is much better off in a team that sees a sufficient amount of the ball. Personally, I’d favour a move abroad, to France or Germany. Borussia Monchengladbach have two young defensive midfielders waiting in the ranks but Baker could offer them something totally different. Eintracht Frankfurt is worth a shout, too, as far as Bundesliga loan destinations are concerned. Of course, there’s every chance that Baker, who just turned 22 a little over a month ago, is given the opportunity to impress Antonio Conte in pre-season, but the likelihood of another loan seems far greater to me.
What would you do with Lewis Baker next season?
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