It has raised a few eyebrows that West Ham boss Slaven Bilic has decided to rotate the role of Michail Antonio recently. Despite banging in the goals for his new side, the 47-year-old has decided to play the winger at right-back in West Ham’s previous two FA Cup fixtures, filling the vacant hole of Carl Jenkinson, who returned to Arsenal following a season-ending injury in January.
Prior to the Londoners' 1-1 FA Cup draw away at Manchester United on Sunday, Antonio netted three goals in his last three games, taking his season tally to seven in all competitions. At Old Trafford, the 25-year-old was on defensive duty as Bilic went for a traditional four at the back and was reluctant to turn to established right-back Joey O’Brien – a risky move considering the stature of their opposition.
For a player who has become a familiar face on the scoresheet of late, surely there’s no better man to bolster the Hammers’ attacking threat, especially against a team like United. It seemed a calamitous decision before kick-off and it proved that way throughout the course of the game, despite impressing in that position against Blackburn in the previous round.
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Antonio’s attacking mentality and eye for goal was an irresistible temptation. This is beneficial for the Hammers’ front line, obviously, but not when there’s a gaping hole at the right side of the defence. One mistake and United were on the front foot, especially when the ball was at the feet of Memphis Depay, who was playing on the flank for the hosts.
It is safe to say that West Ham were vulnerable when Antonio bombed forward; however, had Bilic chosen O’Brien to play at right back, that wouldn’t pose a cause for concern. Additionally, the winger could have fully concentrated on his attacking ability leading to a potential victory of the visitors.
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There’s no disputing the impact the Croatian coach has made in the Hammers’ last season at the Boleyn ground and mistakes have been rare. However, playing one of your standout players - and more importantly, your second highest scorer - at right-back has been an unsuccessful experiment.
Yes, against Blackburn he succeeded the position with refinement but facing a team like United is a different story and they should have taken full advantage of Antonio’s credentials and played him where he is more effective.
A tough trip to Stamford Bridge is next up for the Hammers and to give O’Brien the nod or even return to three at the back showcased against Everton last week would no doubt benefit the side especially with the attacking threat Chelsea possess. Linking up with the likes of Dimitri Payet, Andy Carroll and Manuel Lanzini in the final third, Antonio will no doubt help pose a threat, breaking down the Blues’ solid back line and really give them a run for their money.
Sunday’s performance proved where the winger’s most prolific position was and with a Champions League spot and a place in the FA Cup semi-final swiftly in their eye-line, Bilic can take no risks, especially regarding their most exciting player.