Julian Dicks was my first West Ham hero. A marauding left back who was equally happy smashing in crosses and free kicks as he was smashing opposition wingers into advertising hoardings.
He is probably, in the Premier League era, the best suited ‘modern full back’ we have had at the club. And he is the bar by which all other left backs have been judged. Most have come up woefully short.
Paul Konchesky did a decent Dicks impression for an all too brief period. Illunga, Joey O’Brien and the Wayne’s (Quinn and Bridge) considerably less so.
Then in 2014/15 the club acquired Aaron Cresswell from Ipswich for a fee of around £3.75m and we found a winner.
Astute defensively and able to contribute offensively, the man from Liverpool won Hammer of the Year (and Players Player) in his debut season in east London.
He followed this in the 15/16 season by combining beautifully with Dimitri Payet down the left-hand side and producing displays that put him in the ‘best in the league’ bracket. However, it would be safe to say that season represented a peak in Cresswell’s Hammers career.
A knee ligament injury picked up in a pre-season game sidelined him for four months and he hasn’t quite looked the same since, often seeming to lack the confidence he had prior to his injury.
That lack of confidence was amplified by the arrival of Arthur Masuaku in the same summer (2016/17).
The £6.2m signing was all step overs and attacking intent when he arrived, and whilst he lacked some of the defensive nous of his fellow full backs, he won fans over with his willing runs and forays into the opposition’s half.
In truth, since his signing, neither Arthur or Cresswell have really laid claim to the left back spot. Either in the eyes of the manager or the fans.
The perceived knowledge being that Cresswell provides better defensive cover, whilst the Congolese gives us more going forward.
However a look at the stats from last season (when they played a fairly even amount of games – Cresswell 21, Masuaku 23) throw that whole argument on its head.
Whoscored.com attributes one assist a piece to both, whilst giving Cresswell a higher number of average passes (41 to 38) and crosses (0.8 to 0.2) per game than his more attack-minded counterpart. Cresswell also contributed more key passes than Masuaku over the season (0.9 to 0.6)
Meanwhile the “defensively weaker” Arthur chipped in with more interceptions (1.6 to 1.2), tackles (2.5 to 1.5) and clearances (2.4 to 2.1) than Cresswell.
Now, obviously, stats don’t tell the whole story. For example there is no break down of where Cresswell’s higher number of passes take place, nor where Masuaku is doing the majority of his tackling.
If the passes happen in our half, whilst Arthur’s tackles are higher up the pitch, it would coincide more with fans perceptions that Cresswell doesn’t attack as much, whilst Arthur lacks the positional discipline of a full back.
But it does highlight that maybe it’s not as black and white as we think in terms of the pairs apparent skill set.
Either way, the stats do tell us one thing.
Neither of our current left back options excel on both sides of the full back game in the way Dicks once did and the modern full back is expected too.
So where does that leave us? Masuaku started well enough against Brighton and probably deserves some perseverance given his strong end to last season, whilst Cresswell was left exposed against City. Both seem to suffer from beaten-at-the-back-post-itus.
One option is to go and find a new, first choice left back who can do both.
However, there is currently a premium on defenders, with full backs demanding fees usually reserved for attackers.
Especially if you’re trying to sign one with their best years still in front of them as our new transfer policy seems to be.
One only need look at how much Wan Bissaka cost Man United for proof of this. One good season for Palace and he is worth £45m. Can we really afford to pay that when other areas will also need addressing?
Our other option is to convert our promising right back Ben Johnson into a promising left back. After all, he made his debut at left back and acquitted himself well against the best team in the land.
He comes from good full back stock, he is related to former England and Man United right back Paul Parker, and seems comfortable both defensively and on the front foot.
However, the question maybe irrelevant, as unless we sort out what is happening in front of them, and stop them being exposed to two v one situations, it won’t matter how good our left back is.