As part of our review of the 2016-17 Chelsea Loan Report season, we’re focusing on ten of the 44 players who embarked upon temporary moves away from Stamford Bridge. The ten players have been selected as being amongst the most interesting of the group; be it for their proximity to the first-team squad under Antonio Conte, for the league they’re playing in, the progress they’ve made at a tender age, or simply because their situation warrants closer inspection, we’ll take a look at the year just gone, review the footage in depth, and take a moment to ponder what the future holds.
Today’s focus is on Nathan Baxter.
– 39 appearances, 9 clean sheets for Metropolitan Police and Solihull Moors
What does he do well?
Baxter doesn’t fit the mould of most of the loanees covered in this series but is an interesting case study because of the last twelve months of his career. Fresh off winning the FA Youth Cup in his first season as a scholar in 2015-16, he made overtures to head out on loan with just a single Under-21 appearance to his name, whilst still only 17 years of age. Oh, and he’s a goalkeeper, so that placed him well ahead of the general development curve for young stoppers.
It continued a remarkable few years for a player who, initially, wasn’t expected to earn a scholarship during his Under-16 season at Chelsea. He came along well enough to force his way into the class of 2015 and, when Jared Thompson started the ensuing campaign injured, he seized upon his opportunity with both hands both figuratively and literally, and never looked back.
Speaking to the official Chelsea website in April, he revealed his reasoning behind seeking a loan move at such a tender age: “As a goalkeeper at Chelsea, you don’t have a lot to do…with all due respect, if I make a couple of mistakes and the youth team lose, Jody Morris isn’t going to lose his job, so as a ‘keeper it was good to experience that pressure and the impact on the dressing room (of people’s livelihoods being on the line).”
— Chelsea Youth (@chelseayouth) April 20, 2017
He was thrown in at the deep end, joining the Metropolitan Police (a club formerly comprised solely of law enforcement officials but that now remains merely affiliated as a semi-professional outfit) in England’s seventh tier, and did so well that he switched to National League side Solihull Moors (in the fifth tier) in January. It made him the youngest first-choice goalkeeper in the country’s top seven divisions, and his overall body of work merits far closer inspection than it’s had so far.
Chelsea’s academy goalkeepers are, as you might expect, fundamentally sound and very comfortable with the ball at their feet, but – as Baxter alluded to above – there is little pressure on them to perform and little to no physical work for them to do. Out on loan, he was suddenly dealing with dozens of high balls into the penalty area every match, and competing against big, aggressive opponents keen to intimidate him. A more nuanced deal he also revealed came in simple things like kicking the ball long; academy footballers of all denominations are increasingly encouraged to play short passes and build from the back, but there is scarcely room for subtlety lower down the professional ranks, meaning he was now hitting as many as 40 or 50 long balls per game. That takes its toll physically and requires increased levels of preparation and recovery, something many young goalkeepers don’t discover until they’re well into their 20s.
He dealt with those challenges superbly, showcasing a maturity and a confidence that can only serve him well going forward. His predecessors in the Under-18 goal – Brad Collins, Mitchell Beeney, Jamal Blackman etc – had nowhere near the same exposure at the same age, and only Blackman now has more experience after a year on loan at Wycombe Wanderers, yet he turns 24 in September. He’s got a long way to go but, as far as what he’s done well this last season, nothing comes close to his decision to go out on loan. It gives him a markedly improved chance of making the grade.
Where does he have room for improvement?
Everywhere, although that goes without saying, and is not remotely a form of criticism. He can get bigger, stronger, sharper, more assertive; you name it and there’ll be something that can be sharpened up. Yet whilst many other 18 year-olds are preparing for 2017-18 in academy football, Baxter should be looking for another National League spot or, if everyone really feels good about themselves, a League Two club. He’s come a long way in twelve months and, importantly, can’t afford to return to Chelsea simply to play in the Development Squad next season. It would be tantamount to rendering all of last term pointless and irrelevant as the Premier League 2 cannot compare to the variety and intensity of challenges on offer in professional adult football.
How does he fit into this Chelsea team?
Thibaut Courtois is 25 and could quite conceivably go on for another decade or more, so perhaps he never fits in, but – again – we’re looking at him for the journey he’s undertaking as much as his prospects of representing Chelsea. At the same age, Courtois was a reserve team goalkeeper at Genk about to embark upon his first campaign as a starter in the first team; it would be foolish to compare the two and attempt to draw correlations between their progressions, but Baxter is in a decent position right now to eventually stake his claim as a quality top-level stopper.
He needn’t necessarily make an impact on anything at Chelsea for a good few years yet, and even if and when he does, it could conceivably as as a home-grown back-up or third-choice option at first. The odds are stacked against him – a tiny fraction of academy footballers even have a pro career in the first place, let alone a Premier League career, and unlike most of them, there’s only one position a goalkeeper can play in – but on a purely superficial level it’s just as pointless writing him off as it is predicting stardom. Goalkeepers and their position are both laws unto themselves.
What are his prospects for 2017-18?
To reiterate, he must be allowed to continue his development on loan rather than returning to academy football, where he would find things quite a lot easier rather than challenging himself further. Another season at Solihull Moors would be a good starting point, whilst his performances at that level will have caught the eye of many a rival manager if he wants to spread his wings and undertake another new adventure. There’s also the option of joining the increasing number of English youngsters heading overseas into European football, but it would take an exceptionally bold team to take a chance on a teenage loanee goalkeeper, you would have to imagine. Still, the Blues have plenty of impressive connections, and his willingness to take a leap into the unknown could take him somewhere altogether less predictable.
Getting a Football League move would be ideal though; Jack Butland was at League Two side Cheltenham at the same age, Jordan Pickford was at Alfreton Town in the National League, Joe Hart was also in League Two with Cheltenham, and Fraser Forster was in the youth team at Newcastle. Baxter has never been spoken of in the same conversation as the England quartet – indeed, he’s never been called up by the Three Lions at any level – but it’s interesting to look at how and why the best goalkeepers make the grade, to learn the lessons, and to try to assimilate them into your own development plan. Baxter could be quite the surprise a few years down the line.