I’d like you, if you have a moment, to cast your mind forward to the latter stages of this season.
It’s May 5, 2022. We have made it to the semi-final of the Europa League and we are playing the second leg against, say, Eintracht Frankfurt.
It’s the 90th minute, the score is 1-1 on aggregate – and then, Declan Rice is through! He’s tripped in the box with a desperate last-minute tackle, and the referee gives a penalty.
We have a kick to win it. Who would you back to take the penalty?
Let’s be honest. West Ham have been very good for a while now. Last season was hugely enjoyable, ending in qualification for Europe, and early results in this season’s campaign have been very promising.
We’re scoring goals, and even though defensively we could use a little improvement, pretty much everything is rosy in the Hammers’ garden.
Well, nearly. Aside from the lack of squad depth (a conversation which has been ongoing for some time now), there’s another area that could cost us not only vital points – or qualification in cup competitions – but also the sanity of every West Ham fan up and down the country: penalty-taking.
We’ve already seen this season that, in the absence of regular penalty taker Mark Noble, we don’t have a “go-to” player for that position.
Let’s face it, we got lucky with Michail Antonio’s missed penalty against Newcastle, when Thomas Soucek’s reactions were quicker than anyone else. The penalty that Antonio took was weak and it was an easy save for their goalkeeper.
Our troubles from 12 yards don’t just cover this season, though. Last season our conversion rate from penalties in the Premier League stood at just 50% (although Yarmolenko did score from the spot in the League Cup win against Hull).
Jesse Lingard and Declan Rice scored from 12 yards in the defeat against Newcastle United and win against Sheffield United respectively, but the other two penalties awarded, away to West Brom (hitting the post) and at home to Leeds, from which the rebound was scored, were missed.
Happily, neither were costly as we went on to win both matches, but again Rice and Lingard were on duties for these and both missed the mark (in Lingard’s case, before he tucked away the rebound).
Compare this to the 2019/20 season. We were awarded four penalties then, and we scored from each one – with Mr. Reliable, Mark Noble, scoring three of them.
The last penalty that Noble scored for us came against Leicester City in a 4-1 defeat, but on the other two occasions, they came in matches in which we were victorious – against Bournemouth and Watford.
Antonio also scored from the spot in that season, memorably away to Manchester United in a 1-1 draw, just on half-time. But it’s Mark Noble who has been the mainstay of penalty taking, ever reliable from 12 yards, with just one miss in the last six seasons – in the home match against Burnley way back in 2016, which we won 1-0 anyway.
In that time, Noble has taken a whopping 16 penalties. It’s an incredible ratio.
Of course, missing a penalty doesn’t mean that we will automatically go on to lose the match.
However, it can have a catastrophic effect on confidence for fans and players alike – when we have been awarded a penalty in previous seasons, I’ve always had a confidence that they would be scored.
In the last couple of seasons though, my faith in our ability to score from the spot has waned.
It’s clear that what we need, then, is a go-to player (and a backup) for penalty kicks. I’m surprised that Declan Rice hasn’t adopted this role – after all, he has scored from the spot for us and it would seem a logical move. He’s more than able – after all, he is a world-class England midfielder.
There is, however, another player who I think could step up and take on the mantle of penalty-taker.
In Brentford’s ultimately unsuccessful promotion-seeking season of 2019/20, when they were beaten in the play-offs by Fulham, Brentford were awarded six penalties in the Championship.
Four of them were taken by Said Benrahma, all of which were scored. His ratio, then, can’t be bettered, and since the art of taking a penalty is the same, whether you’re in the Premier League, Championship or playing Sunday League football, surely he is someone who can step up?
Whatever David Moyes and the players decide, it’s an area that needs to be looked at.
Because if we do end up in that semi-final and end up missing that penalty, I’m not sure many West Ham fans would forget it in a hurry.