When Michail Antonio was given the number nine shirt prior to the start of the 2021/22 season it felt deeply symbolic. He had played in a variety of positions including right back, midfield and wing back; a versatility that belied the position to which he was truly suited.
With squad dynamics few shirt numbers mean anything these days, but the number nine has almost mystical significance.
With his pace, strength and aerial power Antonio is a natural centre forward; but it also puts him in exalted company. Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler, Andy Cole and Ian Rush have all worn the number with distinction. It recalls the golden age of centre forwards who straddled the war years.
Dixie Dean, Tommy Lawton and Nat Lofthouse were fearless line leaders who put their heads in where it hurt. The role suited Antonio down to the ground and would play to his strengths. But how has it worked out in this eventful season for the Hammers?
We enjoyed a dream start to the season. Newcastle were defeated 4-2 with Antonio scoring the fourth goal. The first home game produced a handsome 4-1 victory against Leicester, and Antonio bagged a brace in the final 10 minutes. He danced with his own cardboard cut-out on the touchline as fans rejoiced.
I wondered if the predatory striker we sought was under our noses all the time, and it was all the sweeter as Antonio beat Paolo Di Canio’s Premier League goal scoring record.
Another goal in the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace brought his total to four goals in three league games. That really was as good as it got; he scored three goals in the next 16 games. Three goals since January brings Antonio’s total to 10 goals for the season.
At the risk of sounding harsh it’s hardly the return I expected. To be fair, goals have been evenly spread across the team and Antonio is second only to Jarrod Bowen on 12 goals. He’s got eight assists and plays a part in every positive move on the pitch. But I’m still underwhelmed by the lack of goals, especially when it has been a primary objective for him this season.
Compared to previous seasons, Antonio has maintained a reasonable level of consistency. He has scored 10 league goals in each of the previous two seasons. Even playing in more defensive positions he found the net fairly frequently. Between 2015 and 2019 he averaged a respectable seven goals a season.
He has now scored 56 goals in 195 league appearances which is heading for one goal in every three games. Antonio’s goal scoring record prior to joining the Hammers was much the same. At Nottingham Forest he averaged one goal in three games; an earlier stint at Sheffield Wednesday yielded 12 goals in 64 appearances but was hampered by troublesome injuries.
Antonio’s commitment can never be faulted but has suffered dry spells in front of goal this season. There could be any number of reasons for this, but there are tell-tale signs of where the problem might lie. Antonio has essentially been deployed as a lone striker which frankly doesn’t suit him.
He has previously said that winger is his favourite position, and it really shows as he often heads for a wide position with the ball at his feet. This might be part of a tactical plan to which I’m not privy, but I can’t honestly see what this achieves. He shouldn’t be out on the wing because that isn’t his role. It makes him far too predictable; defenders have recognised this tendency and regularly force him onto the corner flag. The threat posed by Antonio is neutralised with a corner at best being the result.
Quite simply he needs a striker to partner him upfront. The necessity to work with another striker will pull him in closer so they can feed off each other. He won’t be able to drift wide if his partner is calling for a pass. Whilst Bowen, Fornals and Benrahma are mobile and willing helpers, they can’t provide the foil that Antonio needs.
Although some strikers can play alone the majority will need someone alongside them. Michael Owen formed an effective partnership with Emile Heskey for Liverpool and England. Antonio is a much better player than Heskey, but could fulfil the same role in partnership with a striker who plays off a big, bustling centre forward. It might require a tweak in formation and tactics but wouldn’t it be worth it?
There could also be a more prosaic reason for his modest goals total. The easy-going Antonio just isn’t selfish enough. The most prolific strikers are utterly single minded in their approach and he isn’t built with that particular mindset.
I suspect David Moyes was looking for a suitable striker in the January transfer window but no one fitted the bill. Let’s hope Batman finds his Robin sooner rather than later.