Craig Dawson’s ‘Man of the Match’ performance in West Ham’s recent 2-0 win over Leeds perfectly encapsulated his form since trading Watford for east London in October.
Not only did the former Great Britain international get his name on the scoresheet, but he also produced a goal-line clearance, highlighting the immense impact he has had on David Moyes’ side at both ends of the pitch since completing his switch.
Such has been Dawson’s form that he now looks set to complete a permanent move, according to The Athletic, who say the Watford loanee is just three starts away from triggering a clause that would see him cross the divide for good.
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Dawson has been one of the many success stories at West Ham this season but is perhaps the most surprising. His signature was met with a unanimous grown from a fanbase pushed to the precipice by years of haphazard spending. This felt like another shot from the hip, a last-minute deal thrashed out to remedy months wasted courting more cosmopolitan names.
Five months on and it’s now looking like one of the deals of the season. Another calculated move by Moyes, who has had the Midas touch since joining the club. And it is not just a defensive stability that Dawson has brought to the club but, rather, a prolific streak at the opposite end of the field.
The Hammers have been devastating from set-pieces this season, scoring more than any club in the Premier League (14) and Dawson, for his part, has helped himself to three of those, placing him second (eight overall) only to Virgil van Dijk (10) in terms of the most headed goals scored by a defender since the start of 2016/17. And he spent one of those campaigns in the Championship (2018/19).
It’s a key area Moyes will look to exploit when West Ham travel to his old stomping ground this weekend, Old Trafford. Defending crosses and set-pieces have been something of an Achilles heel for this generally solid Manchester United side this term, something David de Gea will attest to given what happened on his visit to the London Stadium in December.
Moyes’ side broke the deadlock in the first half from a corner, with Tomas Soucek getting on the end of Declan Rice’s glancing near-post header. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side rallied after the restart, and Paul Pogba inspired the visitors to a 3-1 win in the end. But the host’s opener exposed United’s soft defensive underbelly.
In fact, only Leeds (14) and Sheffield United (11) have conceded more set-piece goals in the Premier League than Man Utd (10) this season. Solskjaer’s men were recently stung by Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s last-gasp equaliser from a Lucas Digne free-kick in the 3-3 draw, while Sheffield United opened the scoring in their 2-1 win from a corner, courtesy of a Kean Bryan header.
Mbaye Diagne’s recent headed goal in the 1-1 draw with West Brom was another concerning moment of hesitation for Man Utd, with De Gea unsure whether to commit and punch clear or stay on his goal-line, and Victor Lindelof out-muscled in the air with relative comfort from the Galatasaray loanee. Simon Kjaer compounded the issue with his late equaliser from a corner in the 1-1 draw with AC Milan, handing the Italian club a crucial away goal in the process.
Each of the last three goals Man Utd have conceded at Old Trafford across all competitions have been from set-pieces.
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So, without the free-flowing pedigree of Jesse Lingard, who is ineligible to face his parent club, Moyes will need to come up with answers elsewhere, and having already succeeded in breaching Man Utd’s net from a deadball scenario this term, it is an area he may once again look to target.
Dawson is, of course, one of the key threats, but Soucek has also netted three headed goals and currently leads the charts for most aerial duels won this season (155), so Moyes has plenty of towering firepower to load the box and wreak havoc.
Of course, anyone who has watched West Ham this season will know that their set-piece prowess somewhat belies their ability on the ball. The Hammers have played some scintillating football under Moyes, with the likes of Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma and Jarrod Bowen bringing a creative fluidity to their attacking line and an eye-pleasing rhythm that will have fans itching to get back to stadiums and serenade their new stars.
To thrive at set-pieces is often to evoke negative connotations as to the style of football on display, but West Ham’s deadball dynamite is just one of the many feathers currently lodged in Moyes’ cap, and Manchester United could be in for a tricky evening if they underestimate the full breadth of their visitor’s attacking palette.