Scouted: Shandon Baptiste
by Phil Webster
During the last international break, Oxford United’s Shandon Baptiste made what was - to the outsider, at least - a slightly strange decision. Baptiste turned down the opportunity to add to his three caps for Grenada (and to briefly swap the steadily encroaching North Atlantic winter for the billowing sunshine of Saint George's) in order to remain eligible for an England call-up. This would be a baffling, but not at all newsworthy, decision for most League One midfielders – but the 21-year-old is no ordinary third-tier footballer.
Baptiste had Oxford scrambling to throw a four-and-a-half-year deal at him a mere 324 minutes into his League One career. It was an almost unprecedented contract at that level, but a justified show of faith. He signed it just over 14 months ago; since then, the pathway to delivering on that faith has been torturous. A shoulder injury initially slowed the runaway train a month into his new contract, before it was halted entirely by a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in January.
But the internal belief at the club has remained. On his first full 90 minutes back, last month, Karl Robinson was prompted to describe him as “one of the prize assets outside of the top level”. And the train restarted in glorious style after Baptiste poured on a stunning man of the match display to power Oxford toward a 4-0 hammering of West Ham United in the League Cup.
So, how has Baptiste ignited an explosion of excitement twice in consecutive years? Why is a third division midfielder – who has yet to truly establish himself as a regular starter, as he continues to rebuild himself from serious injuries – holding out for a future England call-up?
ANALYSING THE RUNAWAY TRAIN
It all comes back to Baptiste possessing a rare toolbox of skills that every progressive team looks for in a midfielder. He’s a game-breaking, supremely-talented dribbler, capable of navigating through the stormy seas of any press. In the 2018-19 season, per Wyscout data, Baptiste was one of five central midfielders to attempt over 5.5 dribbles per 90 minutes in League One; of those five, Baptiste led the way with a 61 percent success rate. This is the sort of production associated with a slaloming winger, rather than a midfielder. At this level, at least, Baptiste carries almost unparalleled press resistance.
But if you’ve had the joy of watching his precise exuberance unfold across 90 minutes, you knew this already. Just take Baptiste’s performance against Wycombe last year as an example. Gareth Ainsworth’s side always press competently; they suffocate and strangle opposition midfielders, forcing mistakes high up the pitch, before deploying direct, surgical counter-attacks. To dwell in possession is to poke your head above the precipice, into the firing line.
Baptiste, though, was imperious: he continued to shimmy and slide past each wave sent to crash into his path, as this clip demonstrates.
Here, Baptiste senses the on-rushing pressure and spins elegantly into space, before galloping unhindered into the vacated area of the Wycombe midfield. It’s a one man counter-attack; the Oxford midfielders transitions from a stress point on the halfway line all the way to the opposition penalty area, threatening to create a goalscoring opportunity, within seconds.
That wasn’t a one-off, though. In the clip below, two Wycombe players (including the imposing Adebayo Akinfenwa) close in on Baptiste as he receives a loose ball perilously close to his own box.
Again, Baptiste assesses the situation before slithering ellusively through the chink in Wycombe’s armour.
This sort of midfielder is difficult to defend against. Modern teams want to aggressively win possession as high up the pitch as possible, but Baptiste consistently turns that plan on its head. The threat of Baptiste turning over a press to kick-start counter-attacks doesn't alter gameplans, it breaks them. The opposition are playing against him before they’ve even set foot on the pitch.
And he’s not just hard to pin down when he’s receiving the ball with his back to the opposition – just look at the crowning moment from his match-winning performance against West Ham, for example.
Here - against top-flight opposition - Baptiste calmly jinks past the first man before creating acres of separation for a clear goalscoring chance. The midfielder doesn’t just progress the ball from deep; he’s a legitimate threat when offered the opportunity to fly into the box.
It’s this threat with the ball at his feet that unlocks his game on every level. Once opponents have adjusted to the fact that you can’t get tight to him, Baptiste has space to operate - with his first goal for Oxford, against Newport, a clear example of the multi-faceted threat he poses.
After watching Baptiste ghost past his teammates, the final defender makes the seemingly wise decision to back away from the rampant midfielder. However, Baptiste gratefully accepts the space and uses it to crack off a blistering strike into the top corner. This is what makes Baptiste such a game-bending player. Close him down aggressively and he’ll beat you with a dribble, bursting into space; back off into a compact shape and he has the technique to punish your hesitance, either through a well-measured pass or a vicious shot.
There are deficiencies, of course, as there are with most young players. Defensively, Baptiste has yet to become a truly rounded box-to-box midfielder. Per Whoscored, he’s managed one tackle and one interception per 90 – both averages that rest outside the top 50 midfielders in League One. To fulfil his significant potential, Baptiste will need to eventually leverage his athleticism and become a menace both on and off the ball. Similarly, Baptiste’s creative passing has yet to get going this season. Again, he’s averaging 0.7 key passes per 90, a total well below his capabilities. He needs to become a more consistent, creative passer to better exploit the spaces he creates for himself.
All that said, there’s good reason for his slow start in the league so far this campaign. After his debut season was curtailed by injuries, Robinson has – responsibly – used Baptiste with great caution. The Oxford coach has afforded Baptiste just two league starts this season to gradually ease him back to full fitness, and even then he’s often been deployed on the left wing, away from the chaos of the midfield.
This is, in part, a product of the fear that Baptiste’s style inherently carries a risk of injury. By dodging and weaving over and through challenges, he's more exposed to awkward falls and harsh collisions; two separate shoulder injuries illustrate the danger of this high wire act. Is it possible that Baptiste’s greatest strength is entwined with his most troubling weakness?
Back in September against Tranmere, Oxford fans were exposed to these worries again. Baptiste, making an appearance as a late substitute, did the usual: he twisted a hapless defender inside out, before winning a penalty from an untidy challenge. All was well, and fans were cheering expectantly for the upcoming spot-kick – but Baptiste stayed down. James Henry’s strike minutes later became secondary to concern for the young midfielder. The relief in the stands when the stretcher was waved away, and Baptiste got to his feet after treatment, eclipsed the goal. Oxford fans feel his every fall like a voodoo doll. It’s this anxiety that leads Oxford and Baptiste to an agonising crossroads. Do they step up his short-term minutes to push for promotion, or do they patiently nurture him back, as slowly as possible, knowing that his long-term potential could be worth even more than a trip to the Championship?
What’s more, Oxford are looking strong this season which makes that question all the more urgent. Oxford sit 5th in League One, with a series of signature victories to their name: they’ve thrashed Lincoln away 6-0, kept league leaders Peterborough United quiet in a 1-0 victory, and made the quarter-finals of the League Cup. The temptation to capitalise on this start by throwing a heavy workload at Baptiste will be painfully difficult to resist.
Their midfield three already contains a destroyer – Alejandro Rodriguez Gorrin – to pick up any defensive slack and a prodigious playmaker, in Cameron Brannagan, to dictate the tempo. The obvious fit next to those two is Baptste, a gifted dribbler to shuttle possession into dangerous areas.
Regardless of the minutes he’ll receive going forward, Baptiste now represents one of the most intriguing under-23 storylines in the EFL this campaign. It’s a study on how to tap into a young player’s boundless potential, while managing their fragilities. There’s a dimension in which Baptiste is over-worked and struggles to improve this campaign, but there’s another in which he supercharges an Oxford promotion bid – and, of course, takes a step closer to achieving his ambitious international ambitions.
The best way to support our independent football writing is to purchase a Handbook, available in print or digital. Thanks in advance!