Is grafter Antonio playing his way into Pellegrini’s big plan?

Has the powerful winger won over his manager enough to stay next season?

Thinking back to last summer when Manuel Pellegrini and Mario Husillos were beginning their plans to overhaul the squad and make their mark on West Ham United, there was one name most of us expected to be on the exit list.

Michail Antonio has, on the whole, been the model professional since Slaven Bilic brought him to the club in 2015. Despite making his debut off the bench against Manchester City just two weeks after arriving, by the time he was named in the starting XI for the first time in December he’d only made two more appearances since.

He was forced to be patient as Bilic’s boys laid the foundations for what became one of the most memorable and historic season’s in the club’s history. His first start, in the goalless draw v Stoke City at the Boleyn Ground was impressive and subsequently kick started his Hammers career.

Antonio’s first goal perhaps sums up the image many people have of him. It came in a 2-1 home victory over Southampton, off his head while he was on the floor and in the way of a defender’s clearance. It was lucky, if not a little calamitous, and we all laughed. But while we laughed, we also knew we’d found ourselves an absolute bargain for £7m from Nottingham Forest.

His maiden season at the club saw him net nine goals and provide five assists in 39 first team appearances, and while the side started the following season disastrously, Antonio kept going from strength-to-strength at London Stadium, forging himself a reputation for being one of the most lethal aerial threats in the Premier League at the time.

That may still be true, too, as at the time of writing he has scored 60 per cent of his Premier League goals with his head — that’s 15 of his 25 so far. Only John Terry has scored a higher percentage of headers in Premier League history, counting only those with at least 25 top-flight goals to their name. That’s some feat for a player who has been asked to play in so many positions since arriving.

He started as a right winger, but then during the many injury plagues we’ve had since 2015 he’s also played right-back, right wing-back, left winger, second striker, lone striker, inside-forward and as a Number 10. Yet he hasn’t moaned once. With all that in mind, it’s no surprise he’s endured a few patches of ineffective form and as a result has been the subject of increased speculation surrounding a potential exit. But, has he really ever been out of form?

His best run of form came in the opening few games of his second season at the club, when the team was struggling to adapt to new surroundings in Stratford, Antonio netted four in three games in the opening few weeks of the campaign. His longest spell without a goal currently stands at 10 games, which came during a period of uncertainty over the festive period during the 17/18 campaign. No one was playing well then.

This season, Antonio has been forced to play a very similar role to the last two. He hasn’t really had a fixed position to call his own and has often been called upon to deputise for injured first team players. However, he has rarely let the team down when called upon. He has only been named in a Premier League starting XI by Pellegrini 54 per cent of the time, yet has still been involved in 20 per cent of our league goals this season.

Five goals and four assists for a player not seen to be the first name on the team sheet should not be sniffed at. Despite all that, Antonio is a name constantly linked with a move away this summer. But has he done enough to remain in Pellegrini’s plans next season?

The general feeling is that he’s not necessarily good enough to be a regular and effective starter for us if we’re to push on with ambitions to get in to Europe. But as a squad player who can come in and do a job whenever needed? I can’t think of a better name to call upon, and that’s why I’d be gutted to see him leave this summer.

What some of us may have forgotten by now because it feels like many years ago, is that Michail Antonio is the man who scored the first ever Premier League goal at our new home. His name is forever etched in the club’s history, and that’s somewhat deserving of a player who has just got his head down and worked hard since signing for us from Forest.

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