It was the news that every West Ham fan feared before a ball was kicked this season, but perhaps the slice of bad luck most were expecting at some point down the line: Michail Antonio has tweaked his hamstring and faces an extended lay-off.
As news filtered through that Antonio’s forced withdrawal in the 1-1 draw with Man City last week was more than a cautionary measure, and that he now faces a month-long absence, a concerned countenance took up residence on the face of every West Ham fan.
The winger-turned-striker has proven a revelation in a central role under David Moyes, scoring 11 goals in his last 13 Premier League games for the club, including that audacious overhead kick against Pep Guardiola’s men last week.
Such has been his form that he’s kept £45m striker Sebastien Haller out of the side and earned the moniker West Ham’s ‘new Marko Arnautovic’ (see below) by the man responsible for reinventing the former Hammer as a centre-forward, Moyes.
With the prospect of squaring up against a depleted Liverpool defence this weekend at Anfield, West Ham fans were purring at the prospect of Antonio combining his marriage of brains and brawn to run rings around an unrecognisable and inexperienced centre-back pairing, whomever Jurgen Klopp turns to.
Fabinho limped off against Midtjylland on Tuesday, adding to an extensive casualty list that already includes Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip. But Antonio’s own injury concerns have now somewhat softened the blow of Fabinho’s entry in the treatment rooms.
Indeed, West Ham have won just once in their last 47 away league games against Liverpool (34 losses, 12 draws), and Moyes would have felt that his best chance of bucking that trend and jeopardising Liverpool’s current 62-game unbeaten run at Anfield would have been to unleash Antonio against a beleaguered backline.
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The objective remains the same, but the parameters of his own gameplan have now changed. So, who will Moyes be turning to in the absence of his talisman to provide the goals and keep his newfound 3-4-2-1 system on full tilt?
The obvious candidate is the aforementioned Haller. The Frenchman, when called upon, has delivered, but his languid style is almost diametrically at odds with the dynamism and rigour of Antonio.
Haller has struggled in the lone striker role, with his best performances for the club coming when partnered alongside Antonio, predominantly under Moyes’ predecessor Manuel Pellegrini.
In that set-up, Antonio’s tireless running and athleticism allowed Haller to focus more on getting the ball down, coming short and linking play. But with no partner, Haller will be tasked with replicating Antonio’s inexorable running and constant harrying.
The Frenchman is yet to justify his lofty price tag, netting just seven league goals last season, but when turned to this campaign he has produced. He was the standout performer in pre-season (certainly no barometer to judge), but has taken that form into the League Cup (with four goals in three games), while he added the fourth and the gloss in West Ham’s 4-0 demolition job of Wolves.
This is now his chance to stake a claim in the absence of Antonio and cause Moyes serious headaches when his go-to forward returns. Alternatively Moyes could look to produce similar positional tweaks with some of his wide players, a la Antonio.
When the forward was forced off last week Moyes initially turned to Andriy Yarmolenko and moved Jarrod Bowen centrally, which is also what he did when West Ham were 3-0 down against Tottenham, and it should be noted that this culminated in an extraordinary comeback.
Bowen has three goals to his name this season, joint-level with Antonio, so could offer a similar, more mobile and lithe option for Moyes. But, this is surely the last chance saloon for Haller and his time to step up, prove himself and regenerate the hype.