Aaron Cresswell for England!
Just joking. Except, maybe actually not joking at all?
Rewind to last season and everyone, including and perhaps most especially West Ham fans, saw Cresswell as something of a busted flush. A nice haircut, but nothing special.
At 30 years of age, and turning 31 at the end of the year, it seems like the Englishman never managed to fulfil his potential. A knee ligament injury in 2016 pre-season definitely knocked back his progress, as did leaving Upton Park (hell, that knocked the whole club’s progress).
- Age: 30
- Club: West Ham
- Position: Left-back
- Football Index value: £0.37 (Sell) – £0.46 (Buy)
- 2020/21 Premier League stats: | Touches: 644 (highest at the club) | Chances created: 18 (highest) | Tackles: 15 (third-highest) | Possession won in defensive third: 35 (highest)
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Whatever the case, between him not being much of anything and Arthur Masuaku being great fun but sometimes unreliable, it seemed as though left-back was a priority for West Ham this summer. However David Moyes instead did something else entirely: he changed formation.
The switch to a back three had many benefits. Most obviously it allowed West Ham to field more defenders and thus better protect the defence. But the perhaps unseen benefit is that it basically solved their left-back problem.
Masuaku moved forward to left-wing-back, where his dribbling and attacking instincts were better served, and Cresswell dropped into a back three. This change may have seemed like a manager just making the most of his resources, but just like it did with Luke Shaw up in Manchester, moving a limited but talented left-back into a back three has had a transformative effect.
Cresswell has been sensational for West Ham this season. It’s no exaggeration to say that he has been West Ham’s best player, which given Michail Antonio still exists is pretty huge. This is a true renaissance, a rebirth.
Playing in a back three allows Cresswell to defence a very specific area of the pitch, namely the area around and wide of the left-half-space, covering behind Masuaku and to the left of Ogbonna. It’s much more focused than playing left-back where you have the entire flank to defend but also you have to push in and help your centre-back sometimes but then also you can’t push in too much and leave your flank open.
With the towering Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena next to him in defence, Cresswell doesn’t have to worry about constantly defending crosses as those two more than take care of it. As a result Balbuena (26) and Ogbonna (24) have more than double Cresswell’s headed clearances (10) but when it comes to ground-based duels such as tackles the Englishman (15) outshines his bigger team-mates (both 10).
In fact no West Ham player has won possession in their own defensive third more times than Cresswell (35). When the opponent gets the ball close to their box, Cresswell can be relied to get the ball back for the Hammers. And he does it so cleanly, too.
The three players to make more tackles than Cresswell (Masuaku, Vladmiri Coufal and Tomas Soucek) have made a combined 36 fouls. The three men most directly below him (Balbuena, Ogbonna and Declan Rice) have made a combined 25 fouls.
That’s not to say they’re sloppy players. Fouling is an inevitable part of defending. Sometimes you mistime tackles, sometimes you intentionally have to take one for the team to stop a counter-attack. It’s not ideal, but it happens.
Not to Cresswell, though.
Yes, that’s right, the Englishman is leading West Ham in defensive ball recoveries, is fourth in tackles, has made eight interceptions having played every single minute (810) of the Hammers’ league campaign so far and yet has not committed one single foul. Doesn’t matter who you are; that is defensive excellence.
But he’s not done.
Not only is he now an actually solid defender, but he’s now also a key part of West Ham’s build-up play. Cresswell has more completed passes per 90 minutes (41.11) than all West Ham players* bar Declan Rice (44.44).
He has always been a good crosser and his set-pieces are still deadly, but now that he isn’t required to provide width, he doesn’t have to hug touchlines, beat full-backs 1v1 or make overlaps. He can simply trail the play, arrive late still in the half-space and receive a cutback from Masuaku or a square ball from a midfielder and, completely unmarked, ping a delicious cross into the box.
*Excludes those to have played fewer than 250 minutes
No wonder, then that Cresswell has the most passes ending in the final third per 90 minutes attempted (13.89) and completed (10.11) at the club. He’s also attempted (8.33) and completed (3.22) more long passes than any outfielder and more crosses (6.44 and 2.44) than anyone at all. Cresswell also has the most chances created at the club per 90 (2) but that metric is aided by his set-pieces, so it’s not all about the new position.
Oh, and he’s also had more touches than anyone at the club (644) and despite all this time on the ball has only been dispossessed twice. He has been simply phenomenal and is as important to the way West Ham play as the gigantic Soucek or the excellent Rice or even the irrepressible Michail Antonio.
Gary Lineker thinks he’s pushing for a recall to the national team (the last of his three caps came in 2017) and you can see why. With England often playing a back three, Cresswell would be a natural fit to play on the left side of a back three, perhaps alongside Tyrone Mings and Harry Maguire, two titans in the air. Put Ben Chilwell or even Bukayo Saka ahead of him and of course club-mate Declan Rice in midfield and you can see how Aaron Cresswell would be an almost perfect fit for Gareth Southgate’s side.
So, yes. Aaron Cresswell for England!