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joetweedie | February 24, 2017

Lewis Baker, number 34: The crowning glory of Chelsea's Vitesse project

Profiling the 21-year-old Chelsea Academy graduate making a name for himself while on loan at Vitesse Arnhem in the Eredivisie.

Number 34

By Joe Tweeds

Number 34

By Joe Tweeds

In many ways football is a universal language: it unites and divides like no other. It provides indescribable highs and unthinkable lows. This was personified by a Vitesse Ultra befriending me during the Wolves vs Chelsea game in Arnhem —€” all he wanted to do was talk football and tell me about his favourite player. Yes, you guessed it. At its very core WAGNH is an example of this theory. Just check the comments section on any article or spend more than 15 minutes on Twitter; you will see opinions that come from every possible angle. This is one of the reasons why I love writing about football. Being able to facilitate conversations about something you love is an incredible feeling. Admittedly, when I first started writing I never envisioned some of the doors this medium would open. It has been an incredible experience and some of the connections I have made go well beyond the parameters of discussing Chelsea.

With that being said I am still not entirely sure how this hobby ended up with me spending a weekend in Arnhem, but I will try to explain as best I can. I received an email from Lewis Baker’s agent, James Kelly, at the beginning of the season. The email walked me through what they had in mind and that “the intention [was] to provide an insight both to the club, Vitesse, and Lewis’s chosen path”. Naturally, I was very sceptical about the validity —€” this was, after all, the footballing equivalent of receiving a random email from a distant relative claiming they had left you a large sum of money. Thankfully everything was in order and I kept in touch with James as the season progressed.

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What was apparent from our very first conversation back in June 2016 was their unwavering belief in the Vitesse project and environment. The only condition James asked of me was that I would provide honest feedback on the whole operation. If it was great, fantastic; if it was terrible, so be it. From a distance my opinion was that Vitesse seemed like Chelsea’s Plan C. In terms of the Dutch game they are certainly not Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV Eindhoven. More quantitatively the loans of Lucas Piazon, Izzy Brown, Tomáš Kalas, Danilo Pantić, Christian Atsu, Dominic Solanke, Cristián Cuevas, Nemanja Matić (sold to Benfica after his Vitesse experience), Wallace, Matej Delać, Gaël Kakuta, Ulises Dávila, Josh McEachran and Slobodan Rajković are hardly ringing endorsements of the Vitesse model. I would envisage both Matt Miazga and Nathan going down the same path.

Like many reading this piece, I would imagine your preconceptions mirrored my own:

  • As a Vitesse fan I would be questioning what is going on. If the above is an indication of the quality of player Chelsea are sending across, why not just develop our own youngsters? What are Vitesse actually getting from this link?

  • As a Chelsea fan, passionate about the development of our own young players, you begin to question if there even is a strategy in place. Out of sight, out of mind? At this point your guess is as good as mine.

So, I ventured into the weekend with some reservations regarding what I was about to see. What would transpire over the next two and a bit days would really transform how I look at football, not just the relationship between Chelsea and Vitesse.

I had been liaising with Lewis’s agent and expected to meet with him on the Friday. My flight arrived into Amsterdam from Copenhagen around 1630 and I had an hour to kill before meeting up with the rest of the party. I had been advised that both Lewis’s father, Audley, and a representative from Chelsea (visiting in a personal capacity) were coming over for the weekend. It was a unique situation —€” an opportunity to speak to the father of a Chelsea starlet as well as someone who had worked at the club for nearly twenty years in a variety of roles. I had the pleasure of spending much of the weekend talking football with them and can safely say I learned more about the game in 48 hours than I have in 20 years.

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Charles Hughes said that football was “long on opinion, short on facts”. I was often reminded of this over the weekend and it is something that will stick with me.

The relationship between James, Audley and the Chelsea representative really foreshadowed much of the weekend.  Audley, a former world champion powerlifter, had been managed by James in his early life. He spoke warmly of their friendship and as such it seemed a natural move to have someone like James look after Lewis’s career. Audley is a diamond; he was completely open and honest with me throughout the trip and by the end was someone I felt I had a genuine rapport with. He spoke candidly about needing to change as a “football parent”, but the passion and pride he had in his son was tangible. “We are like best mates” was something he told me during the weekend. It reminded me of the relationship I have with my own father. I could tell by spending just an hour in a taxi with Audley that Lewis was unlikely to be your stereotypical young footballer.

That hour encompassed as much football chat as you could imagine, and set the tone for what was going to be a hedonistic weekend of football indulgence. We talked about players, Chelsea, Academy Football, Glen Hoddle (Audley’s favourite English footballer) and a host of other topics. It was fantastic to see the dynamic between James and Audley in particular. A bond formed over many years, where Audley now has implicit trust in James looking after his son. In an era where you continually read about friction in the agent/parent dynamic, this was the polar opposite. I took this opportunity to ask my golden question —€” “so come on then, what foot is he?” Cue laughter and the wry grins of three people who knew the trade secret. I made it my mission to see if I could determine which foot he is —€” watching training would surely give me that insight?

That evening I went for dinner with James, Audley, the Chelsea representative and Lewis. First impressions are normally pretty revealing and upon meeting Lewis I was struck by just how normal he seemed. I have bumped into a number of footballers previously and the experience was not always something you’d want to write home about. Lewis is an excellent footballer, contracted to Chelsea, an England Under 21 star and highly thought of within the game. It would be understandable if there was some air of arrogance surrounding him. However, as Audley often told me across the weekend, one of the rules he imbued within Lewis was to always remain humble. He drives a club issued Audi, wore adidas trainers from his boot sponsor, an admittedly smart Moncler bodywarmer, but nothing ostentatious. He is an atypical young footballer, content with living in a quiet part of town, resting, eating and playing football. His social media presence is minimal. He is not in the papers. I am sure he enjoys a night out like any young lad, but you feel these are rare forays instead of a regular occurrence.

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I had been told that I would get some time with him the next day, after training, so dinner was really just about having a laugh and letting the trio catch up with Lewis. It was great hearing him talk about how he had settled in Holland, his opinion on opponents he had played against and just the general footballing culture. I heard some hilarious anecdotes as well as some insightful things about the modern game: a real eye opener. It was during this meal that the move started to make sense. Lewis, James and Audley have a clear plan in mind. The Eredivisie can be seen as a natural progression from Academy football to adult football. With the average age of most sides around 23, there is a significant emphasis placed on keeping the ball on the floor while trying to play attacking football. Juxtapose that with your average Football League team and the education Baker (or another) received at Cobham translates easier to the Dutch environment. If Cobham is school, then Vitesse is very much seen as University.

Crucially, the point is that Lewis has bought into this development plan, which is not always a given.  Take Izzy Brown as an example, whose recent comments suggest others may not always see it for the opportunity that it really is:

“Playing at Arnhem was my most difficult season. I went there with the wrong mindset and it affected me on the pitch. I wasn’t working hard enough. I thought that because I was at Chelsea it would be easy, that I’d play regardless, and that wasn’t the case.” —€” Izzy Brown on his time at Vitesse (via The Times)

We have seen with both Thibaut Courtois and Andreas Christensen that a longer-term loan carries with it a lot of benefits. The club taking the player are more likely to invest time in developing them if they know they can have them for a two-year period. It works particularly well in the Eredivisie where the essence of the game is to develop players and sell them on for a significant profit. It allows for a loan player to embed themselves for a period within a young side and become part of the manager’s thinking beyond the immediate season.

It seems that the plan for Lewis’s development allowed for a six-month settling-in period with the aim of being a fixture in the first XI for the remainder of his time there. 2016-17 was always going to be a pivotal season in Baker’s career. With the U21 European Championship on the horizon, a strong showing allows him to either put himself in Antonio Conte’s thinking or increase the likelihood of a top division loan. At a time where most young players in the Premier League are starting games between the ages of 22-24, Baker has at least another season to continue his improvement. Now we need to see everything he is doing at the moment at a more physically intense level.

At the time of writing Baker sits atop a list of central midfielders in terms of scoring contribution (a measure of goals and assists per ninety minutes played). It is worth highlighting that he does not have the supporting cast of Roma, PSG, Bayern etc., therefore his actual scoring contribution of 0.59 is perhaps even more impressive than the raw number suggests. For context, Frank Lampard’s career at Chelsea finished at 0.62 with his best season being 0.91 (I doubt any central midfielder ever reaches that sort of figure again). With a better surrounding cast and more familiarity at England U21 level, Baker’s scoring contribution rises to 0.79. Purely as an indication of how good that figure is, Kevin De Bruyne is around 0.75 for Manchester City this season. It does suggest that surrounded by better calibre players, Baker is capable of producing at an even higher level.

The following morning, we departed for the Vitesse training ground at the picturesque National Sports Centre Papendal —€” it is of no surprise that Holland’s national teams gather to train at this complex (some on an annual basis). In contrast to many Football League facilities (and Harlington!!) this was truly remarkable. Admittedly, I originally thought I would see a glorified pavilion in a park, so to see the training complex resemble a mini-Cobham was very unexpected. It is set deep within a forested area and reminds me of when I used to train near Bostall Heath in South East London as a child.

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What struck me immediately was just how young the Vitesse squad looked. I did mention the average age earlier, but it is worth reinforcing. Everyone besides Guram Kashia would struggle to get served at a bar. The club captain stands out from a physical standpoint, as well as by having a glorious beard. I would later get to enjoy his individual training work, which involved him repeatedly meeting crosses from a full-back with an unerring level of accuracy. After pointing him out, I was told by Audley that teams had now started to double or triple mark him at corners as Lewis had established a knack of picking him out in the area. In 2015-16 he was almost worth a shot/attempt on goal a game — primarily from headers.

Training began with a FIFA 17 favourite,€” the rondo. To see it up close was quite something. Lewis found himself in a mini-Chelsea group that included Matt Miazga, Nathan and the newly acquired Mukhtar Ali. Given his upbringing at Chelsea, Ali in particular looked very comfortable in this drill. Miazga struggled at times with the speed and Nathan looked perfectly fine. It was here that you could start to identify some of the better players. Those who did not panic could flick, feint and trick their way out of trouble while playing the simple pass when required. James told me that Vitesse primarily used the rondo as a warm-up; there was less focus on running laps.

As the players moved over to the fitness coach, I could see Andy Myers starting to prepare the next session in the distance. After being introduced to him post-training, I found it fascinating to hear that before he arrived Vitesse’s training sessions were fairly repetitive. He expanded their database upon his arrival and training is now far more varied. There were certainly jokes on social media earlier in the season that “Chelsea were even loaning coaches now”, but this move for Myers seems to have had a perceptible impact at Vitesse. Myers looks like a superb coach in the making. Lewis spoke about how it was great to have him around to talk with and bounce ideas off when required.

After the dynamic warm-up led by Jurgen Seegers, the First Team Physical Coach, things progressed into the core part of training. With a game the following day, the general idea was to have a light session of no more than ninety minutes, consisting mostly of possession drills followed by a small-sided game in compressed space. This is where you truly get to appreciate Lewis’s development as a player. Everything from his off the ball movement to spatial awareness are so much more refined now that he has been playing regularly. He demands the ball from teammates in uncomfortable areas and never loses it during the drill. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot: my attempt to figure out which foot he uses is not going particularly well. It is becoming apparent that Vitesse have some good players and others who are perhaps a level or so below.

At this point the intensity of the session picked up with the team moving to the small-sided game. Split into three rotating teams, with the third team standing on the outside to be used as an outlet for a first time cross or pass, play moved at two touches and possession changed quickly. Mukhtar (or Mookie as he is being called) was more than holding his own but Miazga struggled when put under pressure. The session itself was quite scrappy in the cramped conditions. One of the Vitesse forwards looked to be a great finisher, making the most of his chances. I would later learn that this was Ricky van Wolfswinkel of Norwich City acclaim. Lewis scored in one of the matches, but acted mostly as a facilitator throughout, operating as a quasi-centre-back for his team and constantly looking for possession.  Again, under close scrutiny, the way he takes the ball on either foot allows him to just do things much quicker than anyone else on the pitch. It was something that Audley said they had worked on from a very young age —€” use the appropriate foot at the appropriate time for the appropriate action. It is a talent that looks even more impressive from 10 metres away.

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From here we moved into individual work. Miazga went to the far side of the pitch and worked on pinging passes with both feet to a full-back. The more I look at him the more I see some potential — against Ajax, for example, the highly-touted Kasper Dolberg rarely got a kick and was no competition for the American when it came to anything in the air — but it is clear that the Vitesse coaches realise the technical limitations to his game and are working on them. Mukhtar Ali joined Baker and another Vitesse player taking set-pieces. Ali was excellent, repeatedly hitting the same spot.

Watching Baker take free-kicks, I started to understand the laughs in the taxi now. Lewis could be right footed. Lewis could be left footed. The reality is that he is outrageously talented with either foot. I can swing my left foot and get a decent connection on a volley or play a pass. What I cannot do is strike a free-kick with laser accuracy into the top corner over and over again. Throughout training he receives the ball as a naturally left footed player should do and as a naturally right footed player should do. He has that Deco touch in his locker —€” where he kills the ball underneath his foot before rolling it precisely where he wants to complete a pass or shot. His passes are crisp, the technique is mirrored from left-to-right and the options in possession it grants him are different than any other player on that pitch. It is not so much that he can use both feet, but that he can use both feet to drop the ball on a dime. He consistently hit the same part of the goal with either foot at least ten times — hitting the net, hitting the bar and hitting the top corner.

The culmination of this free-kick shooting drill came in the form of a crossbar challenge. I would say the players were about twenty-five yards from goal and probably 5-10 yards left of centre with a wall of training dummies in front of them. The losers would need to collect the balls, the training dummies and anything else left. A young lad from Vitesse went first and put the ball quite some distance over the bar. Ali stepped up confidently and hit a shot into the corner of the goal. Baker stepped forward, lined himself up, and hit a dipping knuckleball straight onto the crossbar with his left foot. I looked to James and Audley who were both laughing at this point. Lewis glanced over and saluted before making his way back towards the main complex. A quick game of “two-touch”, where you try to make the other player miscontrol the ball, resulted in Lewis retaining his Two-Touch-King Title.

With training coming to a close I decided to go back to my original question: “what foot is Lewis Baker?”. After watching him in the flesh for the best part of ninety minutes the answer was quite a straightforward one —€” he was left footed when he needed to be and he was right footed when he needed to be. He may well reveal all at some point, but the ambidexterity of his feet means you would never know if he was actually telling the truth. It is not something flash or a party trick, but just part of what he is as a player.

After training we headed back to the Vitesse complex to catch some of the Jong Vitesse match. I immediately liked Vitesse’s spiky number eight, who reminded me of a mini Radja Nainggolan. He played like he could start World War Three in an empty room. Watching the game with both James and the man from Chelsea was like attending a seminar on how to look at players. The bigger picture is something that often evades many fans, so actually thinking about the match in a different way was challenging. Many people will know I love watching football and that I enjoy a bit of amateur scouting. Without going into the details, the attributes we look for in players as fans is probably 10% of what a club actually considers in their evaluation. It is not enough that player ‘x’ is a very good player.

As the game came to the final ten minutes, poised at 0-0 (but with a red card and probably four yellow cards at that point) I got to spend some time 1-on-1 with Lewis. We had a quick chat about training and really just started talking about football. I am not one for recordings or detailed notes and saw this as much as a chance to speak to him as a Chelsea fan, as to learn more about his experience at Vitesse in general. From the previous night’s dinner, I had already established an understanding with him and we joked about Audley being slightly competitive after pasting me at table football. This competitiveness is something that is deeply rooted within Lewis — he tells me he is not concerned with individual statistics unless the team wins.

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My overall impression from the weekend is that Lewis is a person who loves football more than being a footballer. The more we spoke about the game, Chelsea, his time at Vitesse and his desires for the future, the more this became palpable. I interview people at work all the time and it is quite easy to spot when someone is being insincere or just providing generic sound bites. Lewis, to his credit, was honest, open, engaged and made insightful points. He was genuine, incredibly dedicated to his craft, funny, humble and level-headed. As Audley said: “[his] job is done” with Lewis as a person.

I asked him whether he still felt a part of Chelsea Football Club. His response was overwhelmingly positive and he is regularly in touch with the club about his development. I think we have seen before that while there are benefits to long-term loans, the players can either feel slightly detached from the club or become enmeshed within the loan club itself. As a fan, it was refreshing to hear him talk about Chelsea positively. He told me how “[he has] been at Chelsea since he was nine years old” and his dream is to play for the club. There is obviously realism in our conversation —€” he understands the difficulty and that Chelsea can go and buy a world class player tomorrow, but I felt his sincerity when he said that playing for Chelsea was his goal. Beyond that, establishing himself as a Premier League footballer will ultimately be what Lewis desires. I felt his connection with Chelsea reflected how I feel about Chelsea and that is not always the case with a lot of players who have worn the blue shirt.

I asked him jokingly if there was any position he would not play, referring to Victor Moses’s rebirth as a right wing back. Lewis said he “would play left-back for Chelsea, if Conte asked him”. In an era where many young players’ attitudes are questioned and the debate about whether there is “too much, too soon”, Lewis does go against the grain. A lot of it is to do with how he has been raised, unquestionably. Still, there is self-awareness about him that definitely impresses. You can see it in his demeanour, he is a low-key kind of guy, everything is understated.

We started talking about how he sees himself as a player. Lewis has worked since he was little on the whole right foot/left foot thing and tells me it is just a natural part of who he is now. I ask him which position he feels he is best and he says straight away “as an 8”. Chelsea school their midfielders to play as a 6, 8 or 10 —€” 6 being a holder, 8 being a box-to-box type and 10 being the creative outlet. Lewis has played all three regularly, but is now settling as a number 8 at Vitesse. It makes sense in terms of his all-round skill set. Lewis is incredibly comfortable receiving the ball deep and dictating play. However, his sweet spot comes from being able to seamlessly link all three thirds of the pitch. His long-distance shooting is otherworldly and there is little surprise when he tells me Lampard was one of his main inspirations. He tends to feel that he can play both ways.

I asked him about the first time he trained with the senior team and he retells an interesting anecdote involving Ashley Cole. They were playing a game of keep-ball and Lewis played Cole a pass that, in his eyes, was great. Cole lost possession and jokingly hammered Baker and made him go in the middle. He cites Cole as a great person and someone who always had time for younger players. The same is said of Terry, who does more than anyone can imagine behind the scenes. But it is Baker’s ability to learn from Frank Lampard that I find captivating. The way Baker arrives late on the edge of the area is trademark Frank.

Lewis tells me how he has taken bits away from every player and coach he has worked with. Although there are “too many coaches, too many people to thank”. He speaks very fondly of Nathaniel Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and we both agree that Ola Aina’s Instagram stories are a personal highlight of the day. We talk about the Toulon tournament, where Lewis excelled and was the top scorer. At times the connection between the Chelsea players was absurd and Lewis smiles and just says that he’s “known the lads for most of his life”. The connection and the warmth with which he speaks about his teammates is reminiscent of the Terry/Lampard/Cole bond. He takes time to help the younger Vitesse players and in particular has time for Vitesse fans. Earlier, we caught him signing a pair of the boots he had just trained in for a young fan before disappearing into the training complex. He is definitely not a “doing it for the cameras” person.

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The most impressive thing about this whole weekend was to really see just how down to earth Lewis was. As the stereotype goes, all young footballers actually do is buy £1,500 designer washbags, go to Nando’s and shop. My experience after spending time with Lewis was entirely different to anything I expected. To sum him up I think his response to a question I asked about what his future held was most telling. I expected to hear about him progressing, maybe talk about stepping up another level or a generic answer about pre-season at Chelsea. His response? He simply said “the cup”. I looked at him quizzically. Vitesse, in all their history, have never won a major trophy (they do have a third division title (1965-66) and two second division titles (1976-77 & 1988-89) to their name). At present, they are in the semi-finals of the KNVB Cup and due to play against Sparta Rotterdam in March.

I would imagine that a lot of clubs looked at Baker during January and came calling to Chelsea. The feedback I got from him, James and Audley was that he had always wanted to finish what he had started at Vitesse. He had a manager who placed a lot of faith in him, he was playing regularly and he had become a leader within the team. In the likelihood that he does depart in the summer, being an integral part of a side who could win Vitesse’s first major honour would cement him in Arnhem folklore. He is already the favourite player of most of the Vitesse fans. The young mascot before the Ajax game would attest to that notion as he shouted “Lewis Baker” down the microphone when asked the question. I definitely admired the mindset on display and the patience to play the long game will suit him well in the future.

Overall it was a fascinating 30-40 minutes. It is unlikely that I would get an opportunity to talk to a player at this level again, particularly not in the candid and open manner that Lewis conducted himself. The influence of Audley is clear and actually refreshing. He obviously wants the best for his son but sees the bigger picture better than anyone. His relationship and trust in James is crucial in this respect; the overall goal is to do whatever is best for Lewis. As a fan, I left thinking that Lewis is exactly the kind of player I want playing for my team: someone who cares deeply about a club he has been a part of since he was nine years old and who wants to succeed there. The reality may take Lewis on another path, but he is a credit to everyone who has got him to this point (Audley, James, coaches et al.).

The final part of my Arnhem odyssey was to watch Vitesse play against Ajax at the GelreDome: a proper football ground with four distinct stands. As a slight tangent, I still cannot get my head around the treatment of away fans. Ajax were ferried to the game and stuck essentially in a cage for ages before the match and afterwards. It encourages a siege mentality, something that people afraid of football violence assumedly are trying to stop. Nevertheless, that peculiarity aside, the ground is a cracking place to play when full.

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The hospitality, food and overall atmosphere was superb: I was truly blown away by the whole thing. I could definitely see myself becoming a corporate Vitesse fan. What I had not planned was that James had arranged for a very small tour to take place before the match. We were whisked away and within seconds I was standing in the tunnel. As a bona fide football nerd, the whole tunnel thing was a crazy experience. I could see both dressing rooms and eventually walked out from the tunnel to be closer to the pitch. The view is amazing and I can only imagine what walking out of there might feel like as a player. Sadly, I did bottle it somewhat and can confirm that I did not make the pitch.

That unexpected treat had certainly put me in the mood for the match and I would be watching it from just behind the Ajax dugout with James. Predictably, the match itself turned on a rather dubious piece of refereeing. It would be putting it mildly to suggest that Ajax might get favourable treatment from referees in Holland. After kicking through the back of a Vitesse player in a dangerous area, the referee waved play on: ten seconds later it was 1-0. It certainly was not against the run-of-play, but the foul in the build-up would have been called in the UFC.

Lewis played well, but it is apparent that he is perhaps the only player in the squad who has the composure to play under pressure. His midfield partner seemed to forget which colour Vitesse were playing in. For someone built like Michael Essien, he was a disaster. Winning 1 tackle out of 10 attempts, not winning a single header and his twelve misplaced passes seemingly triggered a counterattack every time. Likewise, those ahead of the midfield were equally poor. One moment in the second half where Lewis was in 10 yards of space on the edge of the Ajax area, screaming for the cutback, was ruined by the type of head-down wide play you discourage at U10 level. I saw Lewis score from exactly the same position for England in the Toulon tournament.

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Too often Baker played an exceptional ball only for his teammates to lose possession. Someone told me before visiting that they would like him to exert himself more on games. From this showing and other matches I have seen, exerting your influence does require some cooperation from teammates. Unfortunately, this was a day where he might have been better off hitting passes to himself. Vitesse are better than what they showed against Ajax, and I hope they play to their potential in the Cup, but this was not their day. Baker put three ridiculous balls in from set-pieces, two of which were squandered by Matt Miazga. The American had a decent game, but he is possibly the last person someone at Vitesse wants to see on the end of a goal scoring opportunity.

To say Baker is a well-respected player in Holland is perhaps an understatement. How many players are man-marked on corners when they are standing 10 yards outside the penalty area? It is not something I have seen before and is a real testament to the threat he carries from that sort of range with the ball at his feet. There is quite a stark difference in the quality of interplay when you juxtapose Lewis at Vitesse and in the England U21s setup. With better finishing quality and wide play, the result may well have been different. However, it makes sense that not only does Lewis tend to play the most key passes in a Vitesse shirt, but also that he has the most shots. To his credit, he does not allow himself to get upset and is regularly seen encouraging those around him. After the game, he was visibly disappointed, but still applauded all four stands in turn. I left the match impressed with his performance, but frustrated because you can easily see his level increase with a bit more quality around him.

I think Lewis deserves a lot of credit for making the Vitesse move work. It is clear that he is likely to graduate from Vitesse this summer and where his career takes him is anyone’s guess. You could see him playing in the Bundesliga but equally at a Premier League side in need of a high quality central midfielder. He could easily fill in the Chelsea squad next season, but the correlation in his development and playing time is clear. He would be a great option to have, but playing regularly must be the goal. In that respect, I think one more step-up is required before he could potentially make inroads at Chelsea; he definitely has the quality to do so. He is already the best finisher in midfield that Chelsea have and when you add his set-piece delivery and all-round game, there has to be a space for him in the squad going forward.

Academy development is much more than simply saying that a player is good. What I have learned over the weekend is that talent is a tiny part of the equation. A conversation about Gaël Kakuta reaffirmed this point. Many professional footballers make it with infinitely more talented colleagues falling out of the game. Lewis has benefited from an amazingly supportive and focused network of people around him. From Audley to James to all the coaches and players he has learned from —€” it is a marriage of talent, application and desire. I have no doubts that Baker has the right mentality. He knows what he wants to achieve in the game and also knows how to get there.

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He already sees the game through mature eyes. The ability to step up and be a leader at Vitesse has extrapolated that learning curve. He is vocal and demanding, but backs it up with performances. Chelsea may have got it wrong many times before with Vitesse, but perhaps the Lewis model is the way forward. Sure, a player needs to buy into the situation, but if they do, the results could be great. The environment, particularly with Myers in the setup, truly allows for players to flourish. Of course, you can look at the quality of player that surrounds some of our loanees and demean it. However, seeing this Vitesse process as an exercise in bridging the gap between U23 and men’s football, it works well. Most of Chelsea’s players have already played in the shape and are less likely to be dropkicked by a 35-year-old centre half.

Facility-wise, Vitesse is lightyears ahead of the majority of Football League teams. They are fortunate to essentially have the national training centre to themselves. Most importantly, it feels like after a lot of neglect/trial and error (depends on your flavour) there is a pathway to success at Vitesse. I would imagine that for those mature enough and patient enough to understand the long-term goal, the experience is truly life changing. A recurring theme of the weekend was the term “life lessons”. The experience of living abroad, something I can now attest to myself, is truly wonderful if approached openly. Lewis has embraced every aspect of this loan and is turning into a very talented professional.

What the future holds for Baker is up to him. The question about whether he makes it at Chelsea is not so much about talent as it is about opportunity. He is consistently one of the best for the England U21s and I am confident that Baker will be a very talented Premier League footballer. He offers something, even at 21 years old, that any team in England would love: a world class set piece taker (and I am comfortable putting him in that category), and a consistent source of goals and assists from central midfield. His next move is an important one, but I have no doubt that if he continues on the same path he will achieve his goal.

As a fan, he was everything that you would hope a young player who has grown up at the club would be. He has the personality, he has the drive, he understands what it means to be Chelsea and I hope we realise that letting that type of character walk out the door is not always easy so to replace. I always knew Lewis was talented, but the most impressive thing about him is the person he is becoming off the pitch.

I would like to thank James Kelly and Audley Baker for their wonderful hospitality and time across the weekend. It was a truly fantastic experience and something I will remember for a long time.

Design/Development: Graham MacAree

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.