Cast your thoughts back to the 2015 summer transfer window, and specifically deadline day. Deals were being pushed through as the hours turned to minutes towards the halting of the transfer merry-go-round. A swift glance at the Premier League saw West Ham provide the much-needed entertainment back in September, with the Hammers signing no fewer than four new players.
West Ham filled their loan quota in a matter of hours, bringing in Alex Song and Victor Moses from Barcelona and Chelsea respectively. Meanwhile, the arrival of Nikica Jelavic bolstered their attacking ranks, with the Croatian’s poaching tendencies adding another dimension to the club’s attacking options. However, one of the more interesting arrivals came in the form of Michail Antonio.
Football fans and Premier League aficionados were already well aware of the qualities of Song, Moses and Jelavic, but Antonio was something of an unknown quantity to many having plied his trade in the lower leagues of his career prior to his move to the Boleyn Ground. Nottingham Forest fans could testify to his quality during his one full season at the City Ground, where only Bakary Sako (115) completed more successful dribbles than the 25-year-old (104) in the Championship last term, excluding the playoffs.
It was indeed an exciting move by the Hammers, who were investing wisely in order to improve their chances of consolidating a spot in England’s top tier prior to their move to the Olympic Stadium later this year. However, as impressive as Antonio was for Forest, first team opportunities were difficult to come by initially. Summer arrivals Moses, Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini each made an instant impact for their new team, pushing Antonio down the pecking order.
He even came close to leaving the east London side in January, with Derby reportedly interested, but manager Slaven Bilic opted against sanctioning the deal following injuries to the aforementioned attacking trio. After a mere three substitute appearances, the wideman finally made his first league start for the Hammers last month. He hasn’t looked back since, starting the subsequent six league fixtures as West Ham’s form picked up in their pursuit of a European finish.
A 2-1 defeat to Newcastle on Saturday may have dented the club’s chances of a surprise top-four finish, but that isn’t to say Antonio hasn’t aided his side’s cause during his recent run in the West Ham starting XI. His greatest asset comes in his ability to run at the opposition defence with purpose. Since the beginning of last season, only five players have completed more dribbles than Antonio (140) in the Premier League and Championship combined, not including the playoffs.
An average of 2.4 dribbles per 90 minutes in England’s top tier is bettered only by Lanzini (3) and Moses (2.5) of all players currently playing for West Ham and reinforces his statistically calculated WhoScored strength of ‘dribbling’. Bilic favours a lone-striker approach having deployed such a system in 21 of the Hammers’ 22 league games this season, so the need for widemen to help stretch the play is essential.
Considering West Ham have developed a statistically calculated style of play highlighting that they ‘play with width’, Antonio seems to be the ideal winger at Bilic’s disposal and his performances since coming into the side reflect that. His WhoScored rating from starts alone (7.31) is the fourth best of all West Ham players in the Premier League this season using the same parameters.
Yet, it isn’t just his power with the ball at his feet that has helped his rise to first team regular for West Ham. Of course, injuries have played their part in Antonio’s progression up the pecking order, but he’s capable of offering a differing goalscoring threat from wide positions. One of his WhoScored strength’s is ‘aerial duels’, with it little shock that his two Premier League goals this season have been headers.
When pushed out to the opposite flank, Antonio is capable of breaking to the far post from wide in order to meet crosses, depending on which wing he is operating on. With space to run into, he has the opportunity to surprise unsuspecting full-backs as a means of finding the back of the net. Not only that, but if West Ham adopt a more direct approach, Antonio is another outlet for goalkeeper Adrian, thus easing the burden on Andy Carroll, Diafra Sakho and Jelavic to knock on his long balls upfield.
It’s indeed been a whirlwind few months for Antonio, who has swiftly gone from the peripheries of the first team to regular action in Bilic’s side. It may have taken injuries to Moses, Payet and Lanzini to present Antonio with the opportunity to stake a claim for a regular starting spot, but it’s clear to see he is taking the chance to do so with both hands.
Does Michail Antonio warrant a regular first team spot for West Ham United? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below