It was only in May Michail Antonio signed a new long-term contract at West Ham that made him one of the club’s top earners and essentially ruled out a summer move to Premier League champions Chelsea. But situations seem to change quicker in football than any other sport and, especially while sidelined through injury, it’s hard to see where the powerful wide-man fits in at the London Stadium under David Moyes.
He’s struggled at wing-back before for the Irons and Pablo Zabaleta has made that role his own this season in any case. He can be utilised as a centre-forward as well but has never been one for playing with his back to goal. In fact, how to make use of his goalscoring prowess despite never quite having the wiring of an out-and-out centre-forward has been the recurring riddle facing managers throughout the 27-year-old’s career. Tellingly, from 55 goals and 44 assists for the Hammers, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday, just three strikes and three setups have come while leading the line.
In truth, Antonio is at his best when he’s playing out wide, allowing him to ghost into the box with late runs and score headers at the near or far post, reacting to the movements of the central striker. But in the 3-5-2-come-3-6-1 formation Moyes has used on the most part since taking over from Slaven Bilic, that wide role in the traditional sense doesn’t really exist. Perhaps injuries to Marko Arnautovic, Manuel Lanzini and Andy Carroll will oblige the Scot to accommodate him more, but the prevailing headline makes difficult reading – when everybody’s fit, Antonio isn’t a guaranteed starter anymore.
Fitness permitting – he’s expected to be available for the first week of February – that makes this January a curious one in Antonio’s career, one where he could be faced with a choice of collecting pay cheques on West Ham’s bench or moving to a slightly smaller pond, where he’s treated like the star man in a manner that will enhance his chances of making it into Gareth Southgate’s World Cup plans. Antonio has been called up to the England squad thrice before, by both Southgate and Sam Allardyce, but is still awaiting his first Three Lions cap.
That’s where former club Southampton come into the picture, not least because they’re desperately short on firepower this season. Saints have actually created the seventh-most chances of any side in the division – although the actually quality of them remains somewhat suspect – but have only scored one goal per game in the Premier League. Their top scorer Charlie Austin stands on just six goals, and he’ll be out of action until March at the earliest after suffering another serious injury. Now in the relegation zone after Stoke’s win over Huddersfield on Saturday, Southampton don’t have the time to wait for Austin to return to fitness.
The obvious solution is to sign another centre-forward this month, but Southampton already have three of those with Manolo Gabbiadini and Shane Long struggling to fill Austin’s void. And even when Austin was in the team, there was far too much pressure on him to score – it quickly became a case of Austin failing to find the net equating to a defeat or a draw.
In actuality Saints need netting prowess in other departments as well and players who can share that burden with the centre-forward. Nathan Redmond and Sofiane Boufal should be fulfilling that responsibility this season, but neither have consistently delivered. That’s why Southampton were in the hunt for Theo Walcott and are now targeting Quincy Promes – two wide forwards who can score goals, rather than central front-men.
Antonio is of the same mould and much like Promes and Walcott, he’d offer Southampton something else they’ve desperately lacked this season – dynamism on the counter-attack. It speaks volumes that left-back Ryan Bertrand provided the pace and width to create a Tottenham own goal on Sunday, rather than one of their midfielders.
Redmond and Boufal do offer Southampton speed, but both prefer to venture inside and neither combine that natural pace with similar power – the mixture Saints need in attack to truly start causing problems for opposition defences. Antonio boasts that in abundance and his proven aerial prowess in the Premier League, only outscored for headed goals by Fernando Llorente and Christian Benteke last season, particularly suits a Southampton side that have averaged the joint-second-most crosses per match this term, 21, of any team in the division.
And there is already something of a connection to the club as well. At the age of 20, Antonio was part of the Southampton side that won the 2009/10 Football League Trophy and missed out on the League One playoffs by just one place under Alan Pardew. Through different journeys, both Southampton and Antonio have made their way up to the Premier League since; that connection could be the extra incentive Southampton need to convince Antonio to leave the London Stadium mid-season for a relegation battle.
Transfermarkt value the powerful winger at £16.2million, but convincing West Ham to part with him this month – especially in light of recent injuries to attacking players – may require a little more.