It was probably wise advice from Ryan Shawcross – who saw plenty of transfers in January during his time as Stoke City captain – to wait until a new signing had played 10 games to pass any real judgement.
But it’s tempting to leapfrog Lewis Baker, the 26-year-old midfielder brought from Chelsea last month by Michael O’Neill, given the scale of his instant impact.
Baker debuted with an eye-catching Hull appearance, scored a fine goal in an encouraging and entertaining 3-2 loss to runaway leaders Fulham, captained the side in a spirited draw with Huddersfield and scored one and another in a crushing 3. -0 victory over Swansea. He was probably the choice in a defeat at Coventry as well.
He even managed to take a penalty with confidence, probably Stoke’s most surprising kick since Peter Hoekstra buried a Panenka almost 20 years ago given the club’s recent record.
O’Neill said after the Swansea game: “We knew we were getting a quality player and what Lewis has shown since joining the club is real confidence.
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“In every game he’s played he’s taken the ball, you see how he is before the game with other guys in the locker room. Physically he’s in fantastic condition. He gets the ball back.
“He elevates the players around him and we are delighted with the contribution he has made so far.”
Baker had spent 16 years at Chelsea where he rose through the ranks with huge expectations from Jose Mourinho – but he only made two senior appearances, FA Cup subs outings eight years apart.
Instead, his senior experience has been on loan, registering almost 200 appearances for clubs such as Vitesse Arnhem, Reading, Middlesbrough, Leeds and Trabzonspor.
He came close to joining Stoke in the summer but, with 12 months remaining on his contract, it took until the start of the year to get him through.
O’Neill said at the time: “We were close to doing Lewis in the summer, but it got quite complex, the deal with Chelsea at that time, and it was always going to be easier when the player was in the last six months of his contract, we were also able to do it on a longer term.
“We have a number of other players in the last six months of their contracts and Lewis is at a good age where I think he can start his career at Stoke and he is going to be an important player for us.”
He added: “One of the things we always liked about Lewis was his ability to play in sixes or eights. He has the ability, he has a great passing range.
“You saw his ability (against Fulham) to get up to the ball and his energy and physicality, he’s a strong lad in fantastic physical condition. Likewise, he also has the quality to play in eights.
“He has that ability to get up and be around the box and he clearly has a good shot on him. Good set piece too, he has a lot of clubs in his bag.
Baker also allowed Stoke to change formation, adding the options in midfield to play in front of a back four. This was combined with the arrival of Jaden Philogene-Bidace. playing on the wing, or fitness of Tyrese Campbell, emergence of D’Margio Wright-Phillips.
The role had been a priority in the transfer window for O’Neill, who had previously opted for a 3-5-2 system to suit his squad’s personnel.
The manager said in December: “I think the most important thing is really to mix well.
“I’m not sure we have the right mix at the minute with the midfield players we have to be able to play 3-4-3 for example.”
It’s promising for coaches, players and fans, knowing that the team must produce their best game of the season during the break-in to return to challenge the top six.
It will be interesting to come back after five more games.