West Ham United have had a curious season so far. Their eight points have all been won against clubs who finished in the top seven in the Premier League last season, even though they only took 10 points from their 14 matches against those sides in 2019/20.
While Liverpool are on a good run against the Hammers, having won six and drawn two of the last eight league meetings, West Ham’s decent record against the top sides this season will certainly give Jurgen Klopp pause for thought.
And chief among the Liverpool manager’s concerns, particularly in light of the injury problems the Reds are suffering from in central defence, is the form of Michail Antonio.
The 30-year old has scored 11 Premier League goals in 15 appearances since football resumed in June. That’s over a quarter of his top flight career total of 39 which has taken him five years to amass. Antonio is clearly in the form of his life.
Yet he’s not an especially clinical striker. Even in this hot streak, his 11 strikes have come from chances valued at 10.7 expected goals by Understat. Not that this should be underestimated – what Roberto Firmino wouldn’t have given to convert chances in line with their value last season.
But it shows Antonio is unlikely to pose too much threat from unconventional areas, as much as his goal against Manchester City last weekend was a fabulous piece of improvisation. He has yet to score from outside the penalty area in his Premier League career, and 36 of his 39 goals have been hit from the central zone within the width of the six yard box.
Two of his three goals which were scored from the right of the box did come against Liverpool though. He scored in a 4-1 loss at Anfield in 2018, before equalising Sadio Mane’s goal in a 1-1 draw in London in 2019/20. However, it’s clear he does his best work directly in front of the goal frame.
And he’ll almost certainly test Alisson should he get the chance. Only three players averaged more shots on target per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season (per FBRef), and only four who took at least 60 shots put a higher proportion of them on target.
As Mohamed Salah was in the former category and Mane the latter, the Reds should pose West Ham problems of their own. Antonio can certainly hit back though.
His threat in the air could also pose a serious problem to a Liverpool side without Virgil van Dijk and (probably) Joel Matip, their best players for winning aerial duels.
But where he scored six headed goals in both 2015/16 and 2016/17 – only being one goal off being the division’s top scorer of headers both years, per WhoScored – he only has six in the league since then.
Nonetheless, where he has underachieved his expected goal figures in open play, from set pieces he has scored 12 league goals from chances worth approximately eight (per Understat).
West Ham probably won’t create a huge amount in open play, so Liverpool will need to be very wary of Antonio when any dead ball situations crop up.
What is perhaps less obvious is how strong a dribbler Antonio is. He has already taken the ball past 16 players in total, the eighth most in the top flight (per FBRef), and he made 15 successful dribbles which led to shots in 2019/20, which put him joint-ninth in the rankings alongside Roberto Firmino and Heung-Min Son.
So how do Liverpool stop him scoring? Antonio will probably lead the line alone in David Moyes’ preferred 4-5-1 formation so if they can starve him of service that will go a long way to keeping him quiet.
That sounds obvious, but he thrives off service – 10 of his 12 non-penalty league goals since the start of last season have been assisted – and in the matches in which he has failed to score this season he rarely received the ball in the centre of the box.
The Reds will no doubt already be plotting the best plan to keep him quiet at set-pieces, and also how to stop the supply to him in central areas.
As things stand, it’s not even certain that Antonio will be fit for the match at Anfield on Saturday evening. His five goals versus Liverpool mean that Watford are the only team he has scored against more times in his career. It would certainly do the injury-hit Reds defence a favour if he proves to be unavailable.