West Ham: How Michail Antonio’s grit highlighted flashy flaws in Manuel Pellegrini’s side

The returning winger symbolised the sense of urgency and perseverance that the Hammers have desperately lacked

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Monday 25 November 2019 08:54
Dele Alli reacts to West Ham win

Manuel Pellegrini had very little to cling onto on Saturday. But even the positive he managed to find was turned on him.

The form of his goalkeeper Roberto, by no means the worst aspect of their 3-2 defeat to Tottenham but certainly a contributing factor to their five defeats in six games, was not a discussion point for the Chilean. He did not want to talk about individuals. Why, then, did he open his press conference by talking about Michail Antonio’s performance?

To be fair to the Chilean, what use is there in bad-mouthing a keeper already bereft of confidence? And in Antonio, who was returning from injury, here was a spirited performer who provided a blueprint for how West Ham could turn this around and, perhaps save their manager’s skin.

As far as The Independent understands, Rafael Benitez has been sounded out by the club. The Spaniard is currently managing Dalian Yifang in the Chinese Super League with the season finishing in three weeks. However, the £15million to prise him out of this two-year contract is seen as too dear. Chris Houghton, the former Brighton and Newcastle United manager is also in the mix as a cheaper and more available option.

Changing the manager, though, won’t necessarily change the attitudes on the pitch. The fans know it, too.

The first big cheer for a West Ham player came for Antonio as the half-time break was coming to an end.

The hosts were 2-0 down. They’d had no shots on target and had relinquished almost 60 per cent of the ball to Tottenham. Even the half-time entertainment in which a supporter had to hit one of six targets on a smaller goal brought no light relief. “Come on, we need you to give us a lift here,” encouraged the on-field MC. It was not forthcoming.

That was until Antonio, tracksuit stripped, sprinted onto the field along the halfway line and up to the centre spot before either team had emerged. Suddenly, a crowd mutinous since Son Heung-Min’s opener after 36 minutes – a few had already left after Lucas Moura doubled Tottenham’s lead on 43 – were up, inspired simply by the sprint of one man.

Within a few minutes of the restart, Antonio had won a free-kick on the left of the Spurs box by pestering Serge Aurier with his endeavour. He soon registered West Ham’s first shot on target with a scuffed shot into the arms of Pablo Gazzaniga. Then, on 73-minutes, his first goal of the season made it 1-3. “Who else – number 30, Michail Antonio!” boomed the stadium announcer.

Michail Antonio speaks with Jose Mourinho after the match

The 29-year old has always been popular with West Ham fans for his running, and just how much of it he does. Back and forth, with and without the ball, even when he was the only one out on the pitch. That he came on for Felipe Anderson after 45 minutes says as much about him as it does about the £36million signing.

The Brazilian arrived for a club-record fee and brought all the associated trappings of both: flair, attacking verve and the sort of quality that could lift any mid-table side into the top six. During his high-points at Lazio there were Champions League clubs snooping and even last season, when he contributed nine goals and four assists, Real Madrid were supposedly keeping tabs on him. For Anderson’s sake, you hope no prospective suitors were watching this first-half performance. Or his 14 goalless games so far this season.

Not only did he give the ball away nine times in 45 minutes, but he looked shorn of the sort of confidence that made him such a hit when he arrived. As much as you can empathise with a player struggling with self-belief, there was no reason for his lack of effort regarding his defensive duties. Positionally, he may as well been an arrow directing compatriot Lucas Moura into the open space behind him.

Andriy Yarmolenko was just as bad on the other wing, letting Heung-Min Son give Ryan Fredericks a torrid time. The Ukrainian rarely tracks back as it is, but you should not need to be prompted to help when someone is clearly struggling. For all the talent in his left-foot, the Ukranian would make a terrible lifeguard. He was hooked on 56 minutes for Pablo Fornals.

Then again, it’s not quite their fault. Or rather, it feels remiss to judge them for not being defensively minded because neither were brought in for this kind of situation.

What hard work they do comes at the other end and centres around creativity, not the dirty stuff. The stuff needed when you’re 16th and just three points above the bottom three.

Both represent the quandary West Ham have. They, like other components of the squad, are for a top-half push rather than a bottom-half bunfight. And there is a danger that, in assembling a group of players for the former, they are ill-equipped to batten down the hatches or put in a backs-to-the-wall display.

We’ve seen teams like these sucked into relegation before: dubbed “too good to go down” because of the quality of their individuals rather than their robustness as a collective.

Even Antonio’s goal was indicative of the “never give up” spirit required. The pass from Mark Noble was miscontrolled, squirting out from under his feet, requiring a determined lunge to connect with it. He essentially tackled the ball in from the edge of the box.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was mightily effective. A moment that encapsulated what West Ham need: less style, more substance. More Antonio.

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