Chelsea have garnered quite the reputation in recent years for their approach to youth policy and, in many ways, this has been with good reason. They have arguably the best system in Europe when it comes to securing the best players in world football, though rarely are players given a chance to shine in the first team. Many are forced to leave Stamford Bridge in search of regular football.
But could that pattern finally be changing? Antonio Conte is clearly a manager with youth in his mind, with the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ola Aina and Nathaniel Chalobah all getting involved in the Chelsea first team this season. It seems likely that Chelsea may finally break their youth development duck in the coming years, but who might be the man to make it so?
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is, clearly, highly rated at Chelsea, but when taking stock of the Blues’ academy, one midfielder is shining brighter than most in the context of Conte’s Chelsea: Lewis Baker.
Baker, 21, has only one first team Chelsea appearance to his name from back in 2013, and was one of the infamous three players named by Mourinho that look destined to play for England. Since then, his career at home has stalled somewhat – but his career abroad has flourished.
Currently on loan with Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands, Baker has arguably been the most successful in a long line of youngsters sent to the Dutch outfit. Having spent last season on loan at the club too, Baker’s commitment has paid off this year: the midfielder has arguably become the most important player in the side. He has already made 23 league appearances this season, picking up a creditable nine goals in the process. Of course, this is all well and good, but just where would he fit into the Chelsea first team?
Baker’s versatility could make him a vital asset for Antonio Conte. Able to play on the flanks or in the centre, he could fill the gap left behind by Oscar but would also be more than proficient filling in for Cesc Fabregas or Nemanja Matic.
What’s more, Chelsea have really struggled from set-pieces this season, and Baker is an absolute master of the dead ball. In fact, a number of his goals this season have come from set-pieces, and the Englishman has quickly carved our a reputation for himself as one of Europe’s finest at free-kicks.
His technical style is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. He is a rare breed in modern football in that he is genuinely two-footed. He often takes set pieces with both his left and right foot, leaving defenders questioning where exactly the ball is going to go. This trait also makes him impossible to predict going forward, with his ability to shift the ball to either foot adding an extra edge to his offensive flair.
A typical number eight, Baker’s qualities have been missed at Chelsea since the departure of Frank Lampard – and so his return to Stamford Bridge this summer will be timely for the Blues. Like Lampard, Baker is pinpoint with his passing, devastating in front of goal and he has a real tendency to arrive late into the box.
Lewis Baker is, at present, doing the business for club and country – albeit in U21 form – and it is time for Antonio Conte to realise that. The Italian can, and probably will, move to make a big signing this summer, but first he needs to recognise what he already has at the club. Chelsea desperately need to replace their goalscoring king in Frank Lampard, and Lewis Baker is ready to take the crown.