How Do You Solve a Problem Like Michail?
Michail Antonio’s time at West Ham United has been, for want of a better term, eventful. In one moment an absolute force on the wing, in another an injury-prone liability. Antonio has occupied just about every role a player can, from being played out of position at right back under Bilic, to occasional stints leading the line in times of striker scarcity; it’s truly a wonder he didn’t enter the goalkeeper competition between Adrian and Darren Randolph once upon a time. In this week’s Carabao Cup tie away to Newport, West Ham fans universally cringed at the all too familiar sight of Antonio, coming off a strong game and decisive performance against Watford, pulling up short to an immediately apparent, and visibly serious hamstring injury. This has led me to wonder, after intermittent question marks and occasional shows of interest from Crystal Palace, is it finally time to look beyond Antonio, and if so, what does that look like?
The Man Himself
Michail came to the Hammers from Nottingham Forest in the 15/16 season and has undoubtedly been a servant for the club over the last four seasons. In that time, Antonio has made 132 appearances for the club across all competitions, netting 28 goals and providing 18 assists. His most prolific season in the league was 16/17 where he scored nine times, his highest single season total at West Ham, and assisted five for a combined goal contribution of 14, just edging out his total of 12 from both last season and his first season. While these statistics are not world-beater quality, surely every West Ham fan will remember more than a handful as important moments, often in important games.
At his best, Antonio means trouble for defenders, but we have seen that his physical dominance has come at a price of injury. In his time with the club, Antonio has missed 24 games due to the injury which, while not Andy Carroll numbers, is worrying nevertheless. Following the injury sustained at Newport, this will be Antonio’s third different spell of missed games due just to hamstring injury alone. On top of this, Antonio is knocking on the door of his 30s, a question mark that no procedure or down time can erase. Is Antonio running our of healthy playing time? Is he running out of profitable sell-ability? Let’s entertain these concerns, and think about our options.
If Not Him, Then Who?
From within the club, three names come to mind:
Yarmolenko – The Ukrainian winger is the natural first-thought as he started ahead of Antonio this past weekend, and was purchased only a year ago for the purpose of challenging at this position on the right. Many fans, myself included were ecstatic with Yarmo for a few weeks early last season, only to be disappointed by his long-term injury. Those same fans, or so it seems, were quick to frustration with Yarmolenko’s performance at Watford. While he was not spectacular, I have had to remind myself that this was his first real run-out since an Achilles injury, and still holds a lot of potential. For me, Yarmolenko has one of the most pivotal opportunities in the squad to prove his value, and hopefully he rises to the challenge. However, it should be noted, Yarmo is a handful of months older than Antonio, and clearly not a stranger to the recovery room, so while we can hope for the best from him in the short term, longevity is a concern.
Diangana – Speaking of longevity, that is one positive we could very likely draw from young Grady. While his performances last season divide opinion in retrospect, I found him incredibly exciting in his first season with the senior squad. Similar to Antonio, Grady has shown an ability to slot into multiple positions in the midfield and attack, though predominantly on the right wing. Like Yarmolenko, Grady is left-footed, offering the advantage of playing as an inverted winger on the right wing, as is so popular these days. Diangana is currently on loan at West Brom playing under Slav, thankfully in his correct position, and has seemed to impress so far. With a half or full season of experience in the Championship, Diangana could certainly come back to East London with plenty to offer; and at the age of 21, time is very much on his side.
Holland – Nathan Holland is name heard echoing around West Ham twitter, and one that has received much praise from ExWHUEmployee, but has yet to see a Premier League debut. Though seemingly a talent for the U23s, Holland has neither been sent on loan, nor featured for the senior side. It’s difficult to speculate, having not seen him play, let alone at the top level, but as a winger who has played on both sides of the pitch, I’d be remiss to leave the youngster out. If Holland grows into the role, we could see him and Diangana compete as long term solutions on the wing.
While these three offer different strengths across the short and long term, I won’t leave you without at least a little radical hope and optimism that we might go looking for a replacement in the transfer market. The club haven’t been afraid to splash record amounts of cash to fill needs as of late, and some might argue that right wing isn’t what deserves that level of attention, compared to other gaps on the pitch, but let’s quickly imagine together – here is my top choice:
Ante Rebic - (Bias incoming) What I’m sure is a surprise to no one, I am a massive fan of the Croatian currently plying his trade at Eintracht Frankfurt. Rebic came on my radar during last year’s World Cup where he featured as a regular starter for the Croatian National Team, instantly recognizable as a young, physical, and most importantly, versatile forward. Rebic was a threat from seemingly every angle, and notably took part in bullying Argentina during a 3-0 win for the Hrvati where the Frankfurt attacker scored a scrappy goal off of a mistake from the keeper, Caballero. Since then, Rebic has been part of an increasingly exciting Frankfurt side, notably functioning as a critical third of the Eagles’ attacking trio last season which saw him play integrally alongside our newfound French hero, Sebastian Haller. While functional and dangerous as an out and out striker, Rebic can also play on the wing, or drop deeper off other forwards to create link up play, as well as making himself available later in the play for a finishing touch or extra option in buildup. My most objective argument would be that he’s a young (25), versatile forward, and as explained in more accurate detail in the football analytics book “The Numbers Game,” players tend to transition to new environments better when there’s something or someone familiar at their destination – long story short, Rebic and Haller would likely mesh well and fast if reunited.
Wild optimism aside, I’ll close by sending my best wishes to Michail Antonio. This post has been a function of pragmatism, and pragmatism alone. It would be amazing if Antonio could come back from injury and crush the remainder of his season, and continue to have a healthy and satisfying career at West Ham. I think we can all come together in that common hope. Get well soon, Michail.