Ogbonna shines brightly as we build solid foundations at last

The Italian is playing the best football of his career and has become a key player

Since joining from Juventus in 2015, Angelo Ogbonna has been a mainstay in Hammers’ defence and has now amassed 151 games for us. 

The Italian international has become Mr Dependable at the back and is now one of the first names on the team sheet. Many already have him as a potential Hammer of the Year contender at the end of the 20/21 season.

A recent report speculated that Ogbonna is set to see out his career in claret and blue and that will be music to the ears to many of us who have seen the centre half become a fan favourite in recent years.

It was a shaky start for the Italian having netted an own goal on debut in the Europa League to give Astra Giurgiu a crucial second away goal at the Boleyn Ground as we crashed out of Europe. 

Despite that, the former Torino academy graduate established himself in the side under Slaven Bilic during the Farewell Boleyn season netting one of the more famous goals in the final season a 121st-minute winner against Liverpool in the FA Cup.

At the start, he established a solid defensive pairing with the likes of Winston Reid and James Tomkins helping to lead the club to an FA Cup Quarter Final (robbed against Manchester United at Old Trafford) and our highest finish in the top flight for some years.

He was then part of the side who had a tricky transfer over to the London Stadium and has helped us survive time after time through various managers including Moyes, and Pellegrini. 

He has kept his place under every manager and that is the true testament to his ability.

The only criticism levelled at the Italian before this season is the lack of leadership he brought to the club.

He was seen to be quiet, and that meant we needed an experienced man next to him, and it was noticeable that when Reid was out of the side during the early days, we became somewhat more porous.

Issa Diop’s arrival didn’t help things for Ogbonna, he had to become the more senior party at the back, and noticeable mistakes were starting to creep into his game. 

One game in particular that sticks in my mind is the Brighton 3-3 fixture last season where both Diop and Ogbonna were caught napping and let the ball bounce before Diop’s weak header back allowed the Brighton forward to tap into an empty net.

Now back under David Moyes and with Lukas Fabianski back behind him, he looks more settled, and it is becoming more noticeable that he has added that commanding voice to his game. 

He has made himself into more of a leader; I don’t know if that is under Moyes’ instruction or whether he has taken it upon himself to lead more from the back. 

He is pointing more and marshalling the defence more, something you would expect from the experienced man at the back. 

It is crucial to have that when switching to a new system as we have. Cresswell will require his help adapting to his new role at centre back, and Ogbonna’s experience can only help the left-back adapt quicker.

Our form under the new formation was perhaps a testament to how Ogbonna has led by example. 

Once Moyes switched to a back three after the horror show against Newcastle, our form dramatically improved.

The Italian has even chipped in with the odd goal or two, including the winner at Elland Road to lead us to our first win in Leeds since 2000.

With Ogbonna now more vocal, it will give Moyes the chance to test out partners with him to see who is perhaps best suited to replace the Italian when the time comes for him to hang his boots up. 

While that would appear to be a few years away, it may well be something the coaching team will need to start thinking about in the next year or two. 

The obvious choice would be Issa Diop, the Frenchman has plenty of time on his side being just 23 and has already been described as a monster by Jose Mourinho in the past so is well thought of within the game.

However, there does appear to be gaping holes in his game at present, with concentration and command of the box still an evident issue for Diop. 

Of course, he will improve upon that as his experience grows and with Ogbonna now taking on the role of leader more, perhaps he will be able to marshal Diop through those issues. 

Still, he will need to improve quickly as there are other cabs on the rank waiting for their opportunity should he continue to falter.

Fabian Balbuena is the other obvious name with more experience on his CV and seemingly fewer holes in his game. 

His lack of pace though is an issue for the Paraguayan international, and that will not improve as time goes on, he will need to work on his positional game and his reading of the game.

Playing three at the back will help with the speed as in theory, you will have cover from the other two centre backs.

Balbuena is more vocal and would be the obvious choice to replace Ogbonna when he does retire, but I would instead look to the future rather than look for a short-term fix. 

With that in mind, in a couple more years, my choice to replace Ogbonna and partner up with either Balbuena or Diop would be Jamal Baptiste.

Baptiste is said to be the next big thing to come out of the academy and is already years ahead of where his development should be. 

At just 15, the centre half made his under 17’s England debut, and two months short of his 16th birthday he made his West Ham under 23s debut and has been a regular since. 

He impressed in a recent pre-season game and didn’t look out of place at ‘men’s’ level as we eased to a 5-1 win over Wycombe.

If the West Ham official site is anything to go by Baptiste models his game on Virgil Van Dijk, if he is half as good as the Dutchman, the future’s looking bright for our defence for years to come. 

The Englishman will be looking to learn as much as he can from Balbuena and Ogbonna in training and burst onto the scene when his time comes. After all, who doesn’t love an academy success story?

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