It’s not surprising to find us sitting pretty at the top of the table given how hard we’ve worked this season and how consistent our results have been.
It is surprising, however, that we’ve got to this stage of the season, in this spot in the league with just one senior striker.
In defence of both West Ham and said senior striker, it’s a good senior striker – the strong, enigmatic, and clever Michail Antonio.
He’s a player who gives his all in every match, and sometimes this is to the detriment of his body (here’s looking at you, hamstrings).
When Antonio’s good, he’s really good. Unstoppable good – but as is to be expected with a striker whose hamstrings are made out of biscuits, even with as good of a player as Antonio is, he cannot be expected to be able to play every minute of every match at 110%.
It’s essential to have a Plan B for a multitude of reasons; encouraging healthy competition as a motivation for him, providing respite to him even when he’s fit so that he doesn’t run himself into the ground keeping the Hammers afloat, and also to be able to switch things up tactically depending on the opposition.
It’s basic stuff. This is why it’s so surprising that at this point in the game, a top four team in the Premier League doesn’t have a Plan B – something that did not go unnoticed when we recently had to play a two game stretch without him after he suffered an injury.
Against Manchester United, David Moyes experimented with replacements – and while we wouldn’t say they were a crushing failure perse, we scored zero goals, got dumped out of the FA Cup, and a youth player had his confidence in tatters afterwards by getting both subbed on and subbed off in the same match. So there’s that.
We started with Yarmolenko up front, which was a smart idea. It hasn’t quite been clicking for him in a winger’s role, and striker is his role in the Ukrainian national team.
Other than giving away a foul and winning a couple of free kicks, he was largely anonymous until his injury in the 54th minute, at which point he was replaced by promising youngster Ademipo Odubeko.
Despite looking optimistic and lively and coming with a rumour of greatness in training and reserve games, this wasn’t the right game to give him a chance.
He was isolated and alone, unable to contribute to the game, and his disappointment was clearly etched across his face when he was then subbed back off for Lanzini in extra time.
Against Sheffield United, Moyes tried a different approach up front. Lanzini, Lingard and Bowen all took to the pitch in a creative front three to somewhat mixed success.
In this game, we found the back of the net no less than three times, but, plot twist, all of the goals were scored by defenders, so it’s hard to see the front three as a roaring success in this instance.
Fortunately, we got to see Antonio back to his best against Tottenham, a fixture which normally sees ‘Beast Mode’ activated in the striker, and in this game he didn’t disappoint.
Antonio scored his sixth goal of the season in emphatic fashion and was a force to be reckoned with for every minute he spent on the pitch.
His strength in driving forward is unparalleled, and Tottenham just couldn’t cope with it.
Having him back on the pitch felt like a breath of fresh air, a boost of confidence, and a reminder of what it looks like when West Ham United really get it right.
While some of the replacement systems didn’t exactly fail, they didn’t exactly soar either – and having a fit Antonio on the pitch is the football equivalent of soaring.
There’s no better way to understand how valuable Antonio is than by looking at how we’ve performed without him.
Without him, we didn’t have anyone up front bagging goals. This all changed for us once he was fit enough to come back into the side.
What remains is to find a way to acknowledge that as strong as his shoulders are, he can’t carry West Ham all season – and we’ve got to have a proper Plan B to get the best out of Plan A-ntonio.