West Ham go into the weekend, not for the first time this season, knowing they could wake up on Monday morning in the Champions League places.
The Hammers are behind fourth-placed Chelsea, who travel to Southampton on Saturday lunchtime, on goal difference alone – and they’ve each played 24 games. Sunday’s London derby against Spurs essentially marks the two-third point of the season for West Ham and, after finishing 16th last season, they’re in contention to play at Europe’s top table next season.
Speaking to 90min a little earlier this winter, striker Michail Antonio insisted that the east London side have been avoiding table-watching; but with barely a dozen games left in the 2020/21 season, the temptation must be growing.
Antonio sits second in the club’s goalscoring charts, despite starting just 13 games so far in a season which has seen a hamstring issue carefully managed by David Moyes, but the newfound goalscoring support the club have acquired in the last year have kept the league’s seventh best attack ticking over.
Tomas Soucek and Jarrod Bowen were both picked up in the January transfer window last season and, after slow starts, have been key in turning West Ham into one of the most threatening aerial attacks in the top flight.
As Antonio – himself no slouch in the air, despite standing short of 6′ – puts it, “Oh it’s massive. If you look at our team we’ve got Fabian [Balbuena], we’ve got Angelo [Ogbonna], Tomas, Dec [Rice]. All of these guys are 6’2, 6’3, so we really are a threat at set plays and we do create a lot of chances from them.”
While it’s easy to imagine new signings and their families struggle to settle in new cities and countries thanks to the restrictions enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic, Antonio insisted that circumstance has been relatively kind to the Hammers’ new boys over the last 12 months.
“The signings that have come in have been good – Tomas came in in January so he got the chance to walk around and see the sights. Coufal’s come in in the summer, but he’s mates with Tomas so their families could meet up with each other when restrictions allowed it, and that kept them happy.
“Jarrod’s obviously English born, and he had the chance to get out in London when he arrived in January. Said [Benrahma] was at Brentford so he knows about London – the only person you might’ve worried about was Coufal, but having Tomas really helped him out.”
It remains difficult to talk about the current campaign, particularly any surprises, without diving into the inherent weirdness of a season without fans, with non-standard off-pitch lives and with compressed scheduling due to COVID-19. While Antonio, talking thanks to Betway, insists that life in the football bubble became ‘the norm’ quite quickly, he admitted that the fundamentals of games without fans has changed.
“Right now we can hear what everyone’s saying, if the gaffer says something to us we can hear it, we can say ‘man on’ and actually hear it. When fans come back in we might not be able to hear each other, so for the first couple of games that’ll be weird. Obviously though, we’re missing the fans and we want them back.”
The idea that the game has become more technically accurate in the last year isn’t a new one, but one that the Hammers striker subscribes to, adding, “The intensity’s not the same without the fans driving you to stick your tackles in and that, but now it’s more of a technical game where you can hear your teammates and think about what you want to do. The passing’s gone up, everything’s got more technical, these things have gone up because you can take your time and make the right decision.”
While he missed out on the one Premier League away trip he admitted to wanting to play without fans – Anfield, “the Kop pulls the ball in, it’s unbelievable” – Antonio has continued to benefit from finally finding a consistent role up front late in his career, scoring at a better goals/minute rate than any Hammer aside from the newly-signed Jesse Lingard.
“I’ve played right-back, even left wing-back, left-back, so being able to have a position and know that it’s your position, you can work on it and it makes life a bit easier,” the 30-year-old explained. “The transition from being a winger, where you get the ball with your feet on side and face someone up, to now receiving the ball with back to goal was a bit of a difficult change but now I’m adapting to it, I’ve adjusted to it, and I’m enjoying it.”
This season saw Moyes and co play with a single man up front more than 2019/20, when Sebastien Haller was afforded more chances to play before his ultimate move to Ajax last month. “We’ve gone away from it to shore up the back,” he continued, “and it’s worked. We’re better at the back [Fact-check: the Hammers have conceded the seventh-fewest goals in the league this season, vs fifth-most last season. They’re definitely better at the back now] and the best way to win games is to concede less goals.
“Even then, we’re creating loads of opportunities anyway.”
The next few weeks’ fixtures are perhaps the club’s toughest run of the season, leaving a Champions League place for next season still a long shot, but it would be a bold person who ruled out anything in this weirdest of seasons, not least the success of a well-drilled, talented team with a clear plan. Especially not one whose best goalscorer is coming back to fitness once again for the run-in.