The summer signing of Craig Dawson had West Ham’s recruitment hallmark written all over it: flirt with expensive overseas targets the entire window before panicking and securing a last-minute loan deal, typically a so-called ‘has-been’.
The likes of Duje Caleta-Car and Jonathan Tah were said to be in the Hammers’ crosshairs over the summer and the reports had West Ham fans giddy at the prospect of securing a big-name centre-back but, in typical glass-half-empty fashion, they signed Dawson on loan from the Championship.
The signing, although somewhat pragmatic on paper, was not the marquee acquisition fans were pining for but, the Watford loanee has since silenced his critics and proven the chief policeman in West Ham’s watertight backline post-Christmas, underpinning the astute vision of David Moyes in the market.
The Scot seemingly cares little for price tags and focuses more on what a player can actually bring to his squad, with the £5m signing of the robust and dynamic Vladimir Coufal also indicative of this diligent approach to recruitment. But, just how good has Dawson been since forcing his way into Moyes’ first-team plans?
32 – West Ham have picked up 32 points from their 19 league games this season (W9 D5 L5), the Hammers’ highest ever points tally at the halfway point of a Premier League season. Moyseh. #WHUWBA pic.twitter.com/uzWayCFcsk
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 19, 2021
Five games, four clean sheets (and a match winner)
The true litmus test of any top class manager is his ability to adapt when injuries strike; and Moyes has navigated that predicament expertly this campaign, with his defensive casualty list causing plenty of changes to his backline.
Arthur Masuaku’s protracted lay-off has prevented Moyes from deploying his progressive back-three system (with flying wing-backs), which yielded wins over Wolves and Leicester as well as draws with Tottenham and Man City, while in more recent times the rejuvenated Fabian Balbuena has been unavailable for selection.
So, as West Ham travelled to St Mary’s for their final match of 2020, having conceded 10 goals in the five games prior and failing to keep a clean sheet in each of the preceding six, another busy night for Lukasz Fabianski seemed a foregone conclusion with Southampton lining up with Danny Ings and Che Adams.
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Fans were skeptical as Dawson was given the nod over Issa Diop to partner Angelo Ogbonna for his debut game, but the duo worked destructively in tandem to subdue Ings and Co, with the former winning more aerial duels than any other defender on the pitch (three) and registering a club-best three interceptions as the Hammers ended their clean sheet drought.
In the aftermath Moyes said he didn’t “think anyone should be surprised” by Dawson’s performance, given his experience and quality, and certainly in the proceeding performances he has put paid to the notion that his exploits on the South Coast were a mere flash in the pan.
The Hammers have since travelled to Goodison Park to tussle with bogey club Everton and walked away with a 1-0 win, in what proved a performance almost diametrically at odds with their 4-1 loss in the League Cup on Merseyside earlier in the season. And then the real crowning moment for Dawson.
On a rain-soaked Edgeley Park turf, Dawson provided the winner to edge out Stockport in an FA Cup fixture that had ‘banana skin’ written all over it, before performing similar centre-back heroics to shut out Burnley in the club’s recent and third consecutive 1-0 triumph.
And finally after 411 minutes of Dawson in the side, West Ham conceded. Sam Allardyce’s West Brom fired three past Wolves at the weekend so were always a threat heading to the London Stadium on Tuesday, and Matheus Pereira duly stepped up again, but it is a testament to this recent version of West Ham that they didn’t crumple once the Brazilian breached, keeping Dawson’s unbeaten streak intact with a 2-1 win.
Most West Ham fans are dyed-in-the-wool pessimists owing to flirtations with Europe only to stumble at the first hurdle (usually the qualifying rounds, Astra Giurgiu anyone?), but as we pass the halfway mark of the Premier League season, Moyes has the Hammers only two points adrift of Liverpool in fourth, which must offer fans some excitement.
West Ham’s new ‘James Collins’?
The recent inclusion of Dawson has almost felt like a bit of a throwback in east London, to a time when old-school centre-backs dominated the now-defunct Upton Park turf, notably club legend James Collins, a no-nonsense defender who endeared himself to the West Ham faithful with his heart-on-sleeve and gritted-teeth performances.
That muck-and-nettles approach has been apparent in Dawson’s game. In an era when the ball-playing centre-back has become en vogue, Dawson is proving a recent gold standard for the throwback No. 5, hoofing it into row Z when under pressure and crunching into tackles despite the perpetual gaze of VAR.
His clearances per 90 minutes typifies this approach. Having only played four Premier League games his overall metrics would not offer sufficient scope to dissect his game, but his per 90 stats offer a fascinating insight into these so-called ‘throwback performances’.
As it stands Dawson has completed more clearances per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season than any West Ham player (5) and is yet to be dribbled past by an opponent, underpinning that no-nonsense mentality.
West Ham are also averaging more interceptions per 90 (12.5), more clearances (23.25) and headed clearances (14) per 90, more aerial duels won (23.75) and possession won in the defensive third per 90 (31.5) over the past four Premier League games with Dawson in the side than the previous 15. But, perhaps more importantly their expected goals conceded (xGC) is down significantly, from 1.39 without Dawson to just 0.49 with Dawson.
The Rochdale graduate is quietly dispelling the myth about the requirements of a modern centre-back and has worked wonders to change the opinion on the London Stadium terraces. For now he continues to shine, but can he continue to add grit and resilience to Moyes’ backline and perhaps one day be uttered in the same breath as West Ham’s beloved ‘Ginger Pele’?