This time last season, it wasn’t quite clear how Arthur Masuaku truly fitted in at West Ham.
He’d made just 12 appearances across all competitions since a surprise move from Olympiacos the August previous, which appeared motivated more by the fact the Irons were about to enter the Premier League campaign without a recognised left-back due to Aaron Cresswell’s injury than any real desire from Slaven Bilic, David Gold or David Sullivan to specifically have the Frenchman at the club.
Even at the start of the current campaign, Masuaku’s inclusion at No.3 raised eyebrows. He was vilified by Gary Neville on the opening day of the season for laughing while marking Romelu Lukaku at a free kick – moments later, the Belgian netted in what proved to be a 4-0 demolition for Manchester United at Old Trafford.
“But look at Masuaku there. He is laughing at Lukaku. Lukaku was not laughing. If you defend like this you are going to get punished. You cannot defend like this. I know you are playing in the Theatre of Dreams, but you cannot be day-dreaming like that. Get him off. Rubbish.”
But the appointment of David Moyes has proved to be a turning point for Masuaku, not least because it was accompanied by a key change in formation that has redefined what the 24-year-old is expected to bring to the team. Masuaku always looked defensively suspect at left-back yet a little too inconsistent on the ball to be considered a genuine winger, at least not one who could rival Marko Arnautovic or Michail Antonio for a place in the starting XI.
Perhaps it seems obvious now then, that the solution was to play Masuaku in between those roles as a wing-back, a re-emerging position in the Premier League that has proved a godsend for wide players with wavering end product – Chelsea’s Victor Moses being the predominant example.
It has transformed Masuaku from a Hammers misfit to one of the most important components of David Moyes’ relegation-avoiding game-plan and after twelve Premier League starts there, his impact on West Ham’s results is incredibly telling.
Indeed, during the 20 games in which Masuaku hasn’t started at left-back this season, West Ham have picked up just 18 points, averaging out at just 0.9 per game. Compare that to the 16 points gained from the twelve occasions in which Masuaku’s started there, improving that average by a whopping 0.5 points.
Statistically speaking then, at this point in the season West Ham would have just 29 points after 32 games without Masuaku – finding themselves just one point and one place above the relegation zone. Likewise, if Masuaku had played at left wing-back in every single game, the east Londoners would be on 45 points and eyeing a last-minute drive for a Europa League spot, only four behind seventh-place Burnley.
West Ham’s averages for goals and conceded boast a marked improvement with Masuaku on the left flank as well, and it in part owes to the fact he’s the only player at the club naturally equipped to embrace that role. Cresswell can operate at left wing-back in theory but has found himself preoccupied at centre-half this season, and crucially lacks the speed and dynamism that has made Masuaku so effective.
It’s rendered him West Ham’s most consistent driving force on the counter-attack and that ability to break has been crucial in Moyes’ efforts to turn the club’s season around.
For all the discussion of systems and positions though, it wouldn’t make a difference if Masuaku hadn’t performed so effectively there.
The 5 foot 10 wide-man deserves huge credit for that; he’s averaged the most dribbles and the third-most tackles per match of any West Ham player in the Premier League this season while ranking fourth throughout the squad for assists, despite making at least three starts less than the three players above him – Cresswell, Arnautovic and Manuel Lanzini.
Of course, it hasn’t been a completely perfect season for Masuaku. Unfortunately, the spitting incident at Wigan will be remembered by those outside east London with as much fury as West Ham fans will remember his contributions this season in fondness.
It will be an almighty shame, but only one Masuaku can blame himself for, if the fourth round clash at the DW Stadium becomes the defining moment of the Frenchman’s 2017/18 – rather than his instrumental performances in wins over Chelsea, Huddersfield and Southampton.
But paradoxically, that six-game suspension only highlighted how important Masuaku has become to this team, the Hammers losing four and winning just one of the games their left wing-back missed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, when we recently asked West Ham fans whether Masuaku has become their most important player in terms of results, the response was a resounding yes with 59% of those who took part in our poll voting in the Frenchman’s favour.
It marks a long, long journey since this time last season, back when Masuaku seemed to lack real relevance at the London Stadium.