The 21-year-old midfielder has no intention of staying for a third season with the Arnhem club and could show up Bertrand Traore in Sunday's game
Heading into the final months of his second season in the Eredivisie, Lewis Baker is preparing for the next step. The Chelsea loanee has developed into the star man at Vitesse, but has set his sights on a place in Antonio Conte’s team.
Baker is just one of 21 players who have made the temporary move to Arnhem from Chelsea since the partnership between the clubs was developed in 2010. Patrick van Aanholt, Nemanja Matic, Josh McEachran, Christian Atsu, Lucas Piazon and Bertrand Traore all arrived better known than he, but none of them proved as consistent and sound in the Netherlands.
Some of those who have come and gone have experienced what it is like to represent Chelsea’s senior team, and now the 21-year-old feels he must be getting closer.
“A third year at Vitesse just doesn’t make sense,” he said recently. “I'd like to prove myself at a higher level. It could also be just another loan. I'm under contract with Chelsea, but in football there is always somewhere else.”
He added: "It's a tough, long road. Chelsea are full of many top quality players. But I won’t give up. It offers hope that Antonio Conte gives more playing time to talents like Nathaniel Chalobah, a boy of my age and team-mate at England Under 21."
If being the star of the team for Vitesse is not enough for those back in London, Baker can give them further reason to ponder when they take on Vitesse and he lines up against fellow Chelsea man Bertrand Traore.
The Burkina Faso international is also looking to cement a place at Chelsea and has an advantage over Baker given he has already performed well in England – scoring four goals in 16 appearances for Chelsea. He may be playing for a better side, competing in the Europa League and working with Peter Bosz again, who coached him at Vitesse, but Traore’s performances this season have not been sparkling.
But while Traore has found it difficult to lead Ajax’s attack, Baker is integral to Vitesse.
His development this term has seen him add a decisiveness to his game from the positive foundations he arrived with in 2015. Last season under Bosz and then Rob Maas, he worked alongside Marvelous Nakamba in central midfield while moving forward to take up the role as the key creator.
He was dropped to the bench for a period under Bosz, but his current coach, Henk Fraser, would not dream of leaving him out this season – Baker has missed just one league game through suspension.
In support of Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Baker’s main role this term is still that of the supplier and he continues to create the most chances for his team. But he is now more often the one adding finishing touches to attacks. Baker is Vitesse’s most frequent shooter and second highest goal scorer with nine – including a penalty and two free-kicks. This development is partly down to his willingness to get forward as well as poor movement from team-mates. Van Wolsfwinkel struggles to get free in dangerous areas, while fellow attackers Adnane Tighadouini and Milot Rashica opt either to send crosses in or shoot from distance instead of targeting more dangerous areas. Vitesse tend to enjoy a lot of possession, but their inability to open defences and resorting to shots from distance – only Ajax and Feyenoord hit more from range – is a big frustration.
Baker’s good work has largely gone unrewarded, then, as he is yet to be credited with an assist, and it must get frustrating for an active and eager midfielder. In last week’s defeat to Willem II, he was the player with the joint-most touches and key passes in the game as well as the man with most passes and shots. After seeing a dangerous square ball across the six-yard box squandered because of Van Wolfswinkel’s slow reaction, Baker had one of the game’s better chances when he pounced on a loose ball, took it into the centre of the box and smashed it past the goalkeeper, only for a defender to block it. Later, he sent a diagonal ball into the box which was met by Van Wolfswinkel, though his nudge towards goal was saved. It was another decent chance they would rue as Willem II scored two late goals with their only shots on target to win. Such infuriating displays have been regular for the Arnhem club this campaign, but they are chasing glory this season as they compete in the KNVB Beker semi-finals and are looking for a place in the Europa League playoffs.
Overall, Vitesse have had taken good enough results from teams at the bottom of the table, helping them to seventh place, but they have not fared well against teams near the top and an attack easily contained will find it tough against Ajax’s defence. If Vitesse are to have a chance against the title challengers, who have won each of their last five games in the league, they will be relying on Baker to be effective among the shots from Tighadouini and Rashica.
It will be a good chance for him to enhance his stature within Chelsea. Baker is already given close guidance by his parent club after each game with Vitesse and is rated highly there. So convinced of his talent was former coach Jose Mourinho that he vowed to take the blame if Baker does not reach the England senior team - he continues to play well for England U21s and won the Golden Boot at the Toulon Tournament last year.
His progress is coming along nicely, but it seems unlikely that he will be given his chance in Conte’s side next season. At 21, he is far off his peak and that no one around his age is currently a first-team regular – Chalobah, eight months older, has only eight league appearances – suggests he need not rush things.
Another loan move, then, might be the reasonable step for Baker until he achieves his dream. A tidy midfielder with good passing ability and good delivery from set pieces, he needs to get used to the pace of a more intense game to ensure he continues on the right path.