Football Features

“Not bad for a right-back” — How Michail Antonio became the complete centre-forward under David Moyes

By Ben Green

Published: 13:56, 17 August 2021

If ever you needed a performance to sum up Michail Antonio, it was West Ham’s 4-2 win over Newcastle: assist, rattle the woodwork from four yards, miss a penalty, score… cap it off with another endearingly witty post-match interview.

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Antonio encapsulated the never-say-die attitude that has been firmly entrenched in David Moyes’ band of brothers. Having twice trailed in this frantic curtain-raiser on Tyneside, the Hammers rallied to stick four past unfortunate Premier League debutant Freddie Woodman, who could only pick the ball out of his net in frustration as West Ham surged forward in cyclical waves of claret and blue devastation.

There was a moment in the first half just before Callum Wilson’s audacious back-heel effort where Allan Saint-Maximin countered from his own penalty area, clearing through on goal after pirouetting past Pablo Fornals with dismissive ease, and Antonio, sensing the danger, busted a gut to track back and stalk the flying Frenchman. That muck-and-nettles mentality isn’t quantified by some easy-to-digest metric, but sums up Antonio perfectly: a heart-on-sleeve warrior.

That the former non-league forward is now West Ham’s joint all-time Premier League goalscorer with a tally of 47, drawing level with Paolo Di Canio, is neither here nor there for Moyes and the club’s impassioned fanbase, as his role transcends that of a tradition No. 9. Antonio is not looked to for goals alone, but his hold-up play, back-to-goal reliability, ball-carrying exploits and general ability to link play are the traits that define him.

At St. James’ Park, Antonio was once again the fulcrum. After assisting Said Benrahma’s equalising with a exquisite cross from his weaker foot, the 31-year-old gave the Hammers a two-goal buffer after steaming forward and collecting a well-time pass off the Algerian, eager to reciprocate the favour, before charging into the box and unleashing with clinical precision. 4-2, game over.

That finish brought up goal number 47 in the Premier League for Antonio, an extraordinary feat for a player who, at one time, was being deployed at right-back for the club under Slaven Bilic, a point Antonio was quick to reference in his post-match interview amid the backdrop of a raucous rendition of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” from 3,000 travelling fans.

Although Antonio has tapped into his goalscoring potential, and looks at home up front, the decision made by Bilic in the 2016/17 season was not altogether unruly. For all his potency and prowess going forward, Antonio is an exceptionally versatile player, a formidable factotum.

His combination of brains and brawn has seen him flourish defensively, on the flanks and now at centre-forward. He has even performed as an auxiliary left-back from time to time, playing out of position and on the opposite flank, and yet, not looking out of place.

The graphic above from the 2017/18 campaign, in which Moyes succeeded Bilic in November for his first stint in the London Stadium dugout, shows Antonio even performing as a left-sided centre-half in a back-three, illuminating the full breadth of his footballing palette.

Moyes first converted Marko Arnautovic from winger to centre-forward and he has now done the same with Antonio, who is unequivocally West Ham’s undisputed No. 9 these days, even taking the famous shirt this season to reaffirm his status, and marking his debut donning the jersey with a goal.

Despite featuring just 26 times in the Premier League last season, Antonio was the heartbeat of West Ham’s attacking, ruling the roost for a number of crucial statistics. In 2020/21 he completed the most take-ons (43) among West Ham players, registered the most shots on target (25) and scored the most goals (10).

He also had the most touches in the opposition box (127) and won the most fouls in the final third (16), underpinning his overall value and influence, as the Hammers broke the Premier League glass ceiling and gatecrashed the top six, securing group stage Europa League football as a result.

West Ham fans will be relishing the added Thursday nights, and Antonio, with his insatiable scoring appetite, big grin and scoring prowess, has forever etched his name into club folklore after firing the club to their first appearance in the competition (not including qualifiers).