“Not bad for a right-back.”
Michail Antonio’s reaction to drawing level with Paolo di Canio as West Ham’s joint record Premier League striker was self-deprecating but pertinent. He is the winger who has been repeatedly reinvented. Slaven Bilic liked giving him more defensive duties. David Moyes has prospered by turning him into a spearhead.
Antonio has 20 top-flight goals since the Scot returned to the London Stadium. The £45 million man Sebastian Haller only mustered 10 in total before he was sold in January. Since then, Antonio has tended to be described as West Ham’s sole specialist striker. Except, as he underlined himself, he was long seen as a makeshift attacker.
There can seem something wonderfully illogical about Moyes’ West Ham: the fewer actual forwards they have, the more times they score. Their attacking resources seem lesser than last season, when Jesse Lingard was a catalytic, prolific loanee (if not a striker), but they still started the campaign with four goals at St James’ Park.
But there is something quintessentially Moyes-esque about it. It is a peculiarity of his management that he often does better without plenty of strikers, or at least without potent ones. His flagship achievement remains taking Everton to fourth place in 2004-05; they had sold Wayne Rooney and the only forward who was a regular starter was Marcus Bent, the workhorse who completed the campaign with just six league goals.
Arguably Moyes’ finest Everton team was the class of 2008-09, when they finished fifth and reached the FA Cup final. He had two high-calibre forwards, but Louis Saha and Yakubu Ayegbeni were often injured. They played some games with Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini masquerading as forwards; as was the case four years earlier, Cahill was the top scorer.
Rewind to Moyes’ first spell at West Ham and he benefited by using Marko Arnautovic as the spearhead. If the Austrian represented a very different type of winger to Antonio, both had the power and a goalscoring ability to allow them to be used as centre-forwards.
The paradox of Moyes is that the more prolific a specialist striker, the worse he does. Jermain Defoe scored 15 Premier League goals in 2016-17; Sunderland propped up the table. In all competitions, Robin van Persie and Rooney got 37 goals in 2013-14, while Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez backed them up with a further 19, but Moyes was sacked as Manchester United limped to seventh.
"Not bad for a right-back!" 😂West Ham's Michail Antonio is tied with Paolo Di Canio as the club's record Premier League goalscorer, and had the perfect response... 🎙💬August 16, 2021
Perhaps it explains a seeming reluctance to buy a forward. Certainly Moyes shows an enduring ability to galvanise teams in what appears to be adversity. Maybe it helps to generate an underdog mentality when they lack the quality and quantity of out-and-out centre-forwards their rivals possess.
And yet the most admirable element of it is how it becomes a collective capacity to compensate, to source goals from others, particularly midfielders. Cahill and Leon Osman were constants at Goodison Park in that respect but it can be a surprise to realise Lee Carsley and Thomas Gravesen scored 10 goals between them in 2004-05. In 2008-9, Fellaini and Mikel Arteta joined Cahill and Osman among those who chipped in regularly. By his last year, 2012-13, Kevin Mirallas, Steven Pienaar and the left-back Leighton Baines were weighing in with Fellaini and Osman.
West Ham’s spring surge to sixth could be traced to Lingard, but also to Tomas Soucek, Jarred Bowen and Pablo Fornals. It felt entirely unsurprising that Soucek, who has long attracted comparisons to Fellaini, should score on Sunday while Said Benrahma may find be mutating into the east London Osman.
But it shows part of the Moyes methodology. He is often deemed a pragmatist and his football has attritional elements, but the best Moyes sides invariably have a band of attack-minded midfielders. Some have a bruising physicality, but some are equipped with the technical gifts to score in style. It may make Moyes Pep Guardiola’s unlikely soulmate. Each looked the scourge of the specialist striker last season, conjured goals from their midfielders and flourished as a result.
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