Michail Antonio is having a brilliant start to 2019

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When Michail Antonio gets going with the ball at his feet he’s pretty hard to stop. His powerful running combined with quick thinking mean he can bulldoze his way through the opposition or jink his way past. The West Ham man had struggled to have an impact at the beginning of the season, however, he’s looking to be back towards his best based on recent performances, especially those coming since the turn of the New Year.

This week has been the epitome of what the Hammers’ number 30 is great at. Having played the full 90 minutes three games in a row, Manuel Pellegrini had opted to leave Antonio on the bench for Wednesday’s home match against Brighton & Hove Albion. He was eventually substituted on for Robert Snodgrass in the 63rd minute with his side 2-0 down, due to goals from Dale Stephens and Shane Duffy.

Mark Noble –who’d come on at the same time as Antonio- had set up Marko Arnautovic to make it 2-1 just five minutes after the pair had been introduced to play. Just two minutes later it was the winger who announced himself. With Jürgen Locadia and Bernardo doubling up on him, he kept them guessing until he was ready to make his move. He then pushed the ball past the Brazilian full back, barged him away and just kept the ball in play, cutting it back to Arnautovic. The Austrian took a touch and poked it into the net off the underside of the crossbar.

With Antonio wreaking havoc down the right hand side, West Ham were able to make other opportunities in the game, putting the Seagulls under sustained and intense pressure. Brighton stood strong though and held on for the draw, but nothing can be taken away from the impact Antonio and Noble had.

Three days later and he was starting at right back in the FA Cup against Birmingham City. He has displayed a disdain for playing at full back in the past, when continuously played there by Slaven Bilic. However, with Ryan Fredericks injured and Pablo Zabaleta ill, Antonio has had to fill in there at times in the last month, putting in stellar performances.

Yesterday’s 2-0 win was another of those great showings, as he assisted West Ham’s second goal of the game for the second match in a row. This time, the Hammers had gone up within two minutes and had been in danger of letting their lead slip. It was in the 91st minute that Antonio helped secure West Ham’s progression to the fourth round. He received the ball from Robert Snodgrass and took a touch out of his feet. He then sent a perfectly weighted cross towards Andy Carroll who rose above the defender to head in his first goal since returning from injury.

Aside from that moment, Antonio’s link up play with 20-year-old Grady Diangana was tantalising. The pair put together some brilliant combinations to great effect, taunting the Birmingham defence for the entirety of the game. Diangana was arguably the standout player for the Hammers, but his performance was certainly helped by the overlapping runs and slip balls that Antonio provided him with.

Antonio will be hoping to keep his impressive run of form in 2019 going when Arsenal visit the London Stadium on Saturday. The Gunners have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last four league matches, so Antonio and his team mates will look to exploit any defensive frailties they may meet.

 

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West Ham’s winning run comes to an end against Watford

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Writing about West Ham’s winning run and the last time they matched it was fun while it lasted. The latest win -which came against Fulham- took the club to four wins for the first time since 2014. However, that run came to an end yesterday in frustrating fashion, as the Hammers lost 2-0 at home against Watford.

The game was open from the very start, with both sides creating chances which should have been taken. It was Watford who were gifted the best chance of the first half though. Roberto Pereyra played a one-two with Gerard Deulofeu which saw him enter the West Ham box. Fabian Balbuena attempted to tackle the Argentine, but made a mess of it, giving away a penalty and sustaining an injury that forced him off just a few minutes later.

It was pantomime villain Troy Deeney who stepped up to take the penalty following the delay while Balbuena received treatment. The Watford captain emphatically drilled the ball into the top corner to make it 1-0 before going off to celebrate in front of the Hammers fans. Lukasz Fabianski is renowned for his heroics in penalty situations, but he was given no hope by Deeney’s strike.

Javier Hernandez almost got a goal back before the break, but Ben Foster was able to reach the Mexican’s volley which had been destined for the bottom corner. He also hit an air shot when Felipe Anderson played him the ball after some great trickery in the second half and had an effort stopped by a block from Abdoulaye Doucouré.

However, it will be Michail Antonio who’s most frustrated to have not got on the score sheet. Early in the second half he latched onto a Robert Snodgrass corner, glancing it across goal with his head. He’d got the slightest of touches on the ball, which was only enough to make it connect with the post before bouncing to the feet of a Watford defender.

His second encounter with the woodwork was even harder to take. Grady Diangana had worked himself some space impressively on the right wing before forcing the ball into the box. Snodgrass’ initial header was deflected off of Craig Cathcart and saved by Foster. Antonio got onto the ball with the goal gaping in front of him, but he was only able to send his header against the bar from a few yards out.

Summarising West Ham’s night, just two and a half minutes later Watford scored a second to secure the win. Pereyra and Deulofeu linked up well again before the latter slotted the ball into the bottom corner in the 87th minute. Having dominated the game for large periods the Hammers had found themselves on the losing side without a goal to their name, the finishing touch which had been so prevalent in their last four games having deserted them.

Following this defeat, West Ham sit 12th in the table going into Christmas, though they remain just three points behind yesterday’s opposition who jump to seventh. Next up for the Hammers is an away trip to Southampton on December 27th. The Saints have recorded back to back wins of their own following the arrival of Ralph Hasenhüttl.

 

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Lack of finishing touch is punishing West Ham

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Manuel Pellegrini’s decision to got toe-to-toe with Manchester City was a brave or naive one- depending on how you look at it. However, there were two aspects of his side’s performance during the game which made sure the manager’s risk wouldn’t pay off. The first was Arthur Masuaku’s lack of concentration at vital times. The second is more of a problem: a collective inability to finish off chances.

The commentators praised the Chilean’s tactics and enjoyed the open spectacle that it allowed, however, with just three wins all season the Hammers manager would much rather have some extra points on the board and if the Hammers hadn’t been so wasteful in front of goal, especially in the early stages, there is a chance he could have got them.

Instead, his was the sixth game in the Hammers’ 13 league matches so far in which they failed to score. In the past this has been blamed on a lack of creativity, but that certainly wasn’t the case here. Michail Antonio arguably had the best of the chances, but Marko Arnautovic, Pedro Obiang and Fabian Balbuena all had clear opportunities to score which they were unable to convert. West Ham actually had the same number of shots as City during Saturday’s game, they just didn’t manage to force any in while the visitors hit the back of the net four times- David Silva and Raheem Sterling getting one each and Leroy Sane bagging a brace.

It isn’t necessarily a concern that the side were beaten by City, it is the lack of cutting edge in the final third that will lead to worry. The Hammers have a favourable run -they won’t play any of the big six in their next eight games- so there will be pressure for the team to pick up points during the festive period. Now is not the time for shooting boots to go missing.

There have been worries that the Hammers have been too reliant on Arnautovic for their goals in recent times, with the Austrian directly involved in six of the club’s 14 league goals this season. If there is ever a time when he’s having an off-day it rarely seems that there is someone to step up and put the ball in the net, something which must change if West Ham are to climb the table.

West Ham may be 13th in the league, but they currently sit just four points above the relegation zone. There are many who believe that the side’s run between now and the New Year will be decisive in the club’s season, so it’s important that the team learn from matches such as this and start putting the ball into the net. With Grady Diangana having broken into the first team fold and Felipe Anderson showing improvements in his overall game, West Ham are beginning to create a lot more chances than earlier in the campaign. They just need to start putting them away with more regularity now.

 

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Who will replace Andriy Yarmolenko?

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As Andriy Yarmolenko was stretchered off against Tottenham Hotspur, it was quickly apparent that he would be out for a while. However, it will have surprised many to find that it will be around six months until he’s back on the pitch due to a torn Achilles tendon. The injury came at the most unfortunate of times, as the Ukrainian had gained some momentum following a tough start to life in East London.

With that game ending 1-0 to Spurs, it was the second match in a row in which West Ham failed to score. Therefore, whoever does replace him on the right wing will have to get off to a good start and help top scorer Marko Arnautovic out in front of goal. Manuel Pellegrini has favoured the 4-3-3 which saw his side’s initial upturn in form so will likely be looking to put a direct replacement into the side so he can stick with this system, meaning he’ll have a dilemma as to who he assigns the role.

The most obvious choice in the minds of many would be Michail Antonio. The former Hammer of the Year even started the season on the right flank ahead of Yarmolenko. However, it is his poor performances which allowed the Ukrainian to get himself into the starting line up. So far this season Antonio has been underwhelming, as he has been wasteful with the ball at his feet and hasn’t looked as powerful as in the past. Neither Manuel Pellegrini and West Ham’s supporters seem to be overly impressed with the Englishman at the moment, so he will have to improve upon his showings so far this campaign if he is to fill the spot for such an extended period of time.

Another option is Robert Snodgrass. Having struggled in the early stages of his West Ham career the Scotsman is very much in Pellegrini’s plans. Snodgrass has been played on the right previously this season, though it seems as though the manager sees him as a central midfielder, with his last two starts coming in the midfield three. He hasn’t been able to completely hold down a place in the starting XI yet, so a move back to the right flank could be an option for the man who Pellegrini has openly shown he is a big fan of.

Academy graduate Grady Diangana is the last option. Prior to the 8-0 win against Macclesfield Town there will have been many a West Ham fan who didn’t even know who he is. However, his two goals and eye catching performance earned plenty of plaudits and the attention of his manager. So much so that when Yarmolenko was injured, it was the 20-year-old who was picked to come off the bench for the remaining 51 minutes- even with Antonio on the bench. His performance did his chances of getting more first team opportunities no harm, as he looked comfortable against a higher level of opposition than he is used to. His confidence allowed his technical ability to shine through and he arguably should have been awarded a penalty after a challenge from Harry Winks. If Pellegrini does opt to put Diangana in it would be a real showing of faith in the youngster, though after the two games he’s played many would say he deserves the chance.

Whoever he does pick will need to have a big game on Saturday against a Leicester side who will be determined to get a result following two losses in a row. They will also be directly facing Ben Chilwell, a man whose stock has risen considerably in recent times resulting in his first ever England caps. It will be a test for whoever is chosen, but for three men who have spent time on the bench recently it’s the perfect opportunity to show the manager they deserve to take the new slot in the team.

 

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