Let it never be said that the lives of certain individuals among our modern footballers do not bear fanciable relation to the trials and tribulations of Odysseus. In the badlands of the English Premier League – world football’s glittering, exhilarating shame and scourge – does club after forlorn club scrabble after a plan and method of sustainable development, in an environment in which no management structure is fit to withstand the amount of pressurized hellfire that may rain down upon its upset-blistered flanks within the space of just one season. One club whose development methods are in a state of relative advancement is one of that league’s most celebrated and maligned; and, as a result, Chelsea’s system itself is often a maligned one. It will not be unknown to any follower of the Premier League that season after season, boat after proverbial boat sets sail from Stamford Bridge, dropping off anything up to two full squads worth of blooded internationals at footballing ports around the world, each player’s name followed on each permit and paper by the appellation “Loan Army”.
And not all among those two-squads’ worth are mere squad-worths, either; testament to this may be borne by the likes of Juan Cuadrado, a prime outlet for Juventus and now a treble-contender, or Borussia Monchengladbach’s Andreas Christensen, an honest-to-goodness graduate of Chelsea’s youth academy. The politics of the loan system do, nonetheless, oblige of its players, whatever their quality, that they subject themselves to a journey laden with risk. Victor Moses may now be seen dominating Chelsea’s right flank with steel indifferent to his deputizing forward and his own narrowness of past reputation, but his journey to get there was characterized by its own slim likelihood of success. He was sent first to Liverpool; after, to Stoke City; and, while his parent club disintegrated in the Premier League’s patent fire of failure, he was playing for West Ham. The truth of such matters can be gruelling: functionally if dispassionately spurned by the club who owns your name, the on loan player must face the fact that their own status inflates their cost of development in the eyes of their loan manager, while the weight of possible stagnation is made all the heavier by a usual lack of minutes. The years begin to pass faster, and woe-betide ye sustain an injury; your fitness concerns will not, in the case of you having company in the treatment room, be prioritised. Moses suffered all of this, and too the accompanying pressures that come with resettling family once per year, before he prevailed. Let it not be forgotten, meanwhile, that Moses possessed, in both his successful pre-history with Chelsea and his grim familiarity with sickening odds, two tokens that made his fraught homeward journey easier to withstand than it might’ve been for another player.
Moses’ achievement remains a beacon of hope for those in the midst of similarly protracted homeward odysseys, awaiting the Hermes of Michael Emenalo to nod approvingly at the palpable concord of their skill and drive, and bid the Calypsos of Bristol, Turin, Granada or Arnhem send them back to the Bridge. Ah yes, Vitesse Arnhem, a club whose players must feel more keenly than others the allegations of cynicism levelled against Chelsea’s prolific loaning system; Arnhem, where the daily grind must variably feel like the action of a star-in-storage and the work of a pawn in a book-balancing game of football-as-commercial-enterprise.
It’s true that other Chelsea loanees in other locations have endured quiet seasons, and that Arnhem is a modest proposition in Dutch football. Nevertheless, much in the image of Chelsea’s own crest, roars of the odd lion rampant seem to be emitting this season from the home of 15 prior Chelsea loanees – among their number the unfairly and dubiously maligned Dominic Solanke, the steady-rolling Bertrand Traore (now a Europa League semi-finalist with Ajax) and Wembley conquistador Nemanja Matic. In prior seasons, the Arnhem ship was no more steady for the presence of youngsters fresh out of what has been, for the last several seasons, Europe’s premier performing academy at competitive non-senior levels. The lack of any comparative success enjoyed by Arnhem in the last several seasons was perhaps not preferred over the number of minutes accumulated by the loanees as a meter of the Chelsea loan army policy’s success; but this way of thinking is an insult to the fans of Arnhem as a self-sufficient club and an embarrassment to the potential of Chelsea’s academy. This season was a season for the story to change, and this season the story did. While €10 million record buy Ricky van Wolfswinkel has given Arnhem an enlivened league dignity, the Chelsea loanees have done more than simply help accrue a Top 8 finish, or gather up the riches of minutes: they have steered the Blues’ brother club to the first major trophy in their history. One such future-Pensioner did more than most: the KNVB Cup’s top scorer, Luton’s own Lewis Baker.
Baker is perhaps a dark horse in the race to act as the academic Chelsea’s 21st century culture hero, but to him has fallen some possibility. It cannot be much longer concealed that perhaps no other player in Chelsea’s loan ranks has so broad a palette of technique. He can pitch balls into the area so beautiful on his right that, upon seeing him freely swap onto his left and produce similarly the effect becomes rather more bewildering than purely impressive. This natural whip allies itself nicely to goal-bound endeavours, too; Baker’s free kicks have frequently been spectacular, and his strikes from open play are executed from such tastefully chosen angles and dispatched with such fulminating bend that they distinctively nestle almost in the net’s middle having curled neatly just within the post. Most crucial of all Baker’s qualities, though, must be that key fashioning together of boldness and ease that defines every true footballing mind, that which condenses to something identified by Thierry Henry as “the pause”. It’s what allows Baker, more than more common elements like a well-groomed instep bone or a favourable centre of gravity, to variably drive from 30 yards against AZ or lob home the most delicate of chips against Heerenveen. When he executes something decisive in a way particularly close to his intentions of it, his celebration is to simply stand and bellow in triumph, forfending the corner-flag run as if rooted to the spot by sheer delight.
Vitesse may not be Baker’s home, and he himself has admitted that his site of first glory is not where he is destined to stay, but he has, to a degree shocking for a player whom the club in question does not own, written himself into their history. Baker has become both a symbolic and an active figure of drive and hope in Gelderland; when he drove in goals number 13 and 14 of his season against Sparta Rotterdam to take Vitesse to the KNVB Cup final, he was not merely cheered by his home support; he was serenaded, to the tune of Andy Williams’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, a song he must hope one day he will hear resounding from the terraces of the Bridge. For one fate or another, Baker’s departure is all but sealed and his holiday with his Calypso is over. It doesn’t matter. Arnhem are in the Europa League group stage next season as domestic cup winners. They have their younger number 34 to thank.
And who knows how Baker might be utilised within Antonio Conte’s stewardship; his touch-play in an attacking band remains untested in the more dispersed Arnhem system, though he could theoretically fulfill the de-prioritised wandering inside-centre role newly fashioned by Conte for Cesc Fabregas, and with added athletic pedigree (if also without, as yet, the machinery of vision common to Cesc, the world’s best passer). What is assured is that Baker, should he return to Chelsea, will return the well-deserved wearer of an aura uncommon to most any loanee anywhere; that of a player who defied not only the odds of his tour of duty, but so too the physics of the loan phenomenon itself: he who left a legacy, who bore himself with supreme animus into the fabric of his unassuming foster club and did as much or more than any other to raise them to heights unassailed in their history. If he comes home, unlike Odysseus, there must be no mistaking him.