Michail Antonio has become West Ham United’s all-time leading Premier League scorer with 49 goals, surpassing club legend Paulo di Canio.
Since ‘Project Restart’ began in June 2020, only Harry Kane has scored more non-penalty goals, and Antonio now has 33 goals and assists in his last 43 starts.
These are frankly ridiculous statistics for a player who only became a striker 18 months ago.
Antonio’s versatility has always seemed to work against him, always made him seem slightly out of place.
Unsurprisingly, his move up front towards the end of 2019 initially produced a similar feeling as Antonio recorded just one goal in his first 13 games.
But since the end of England’s first national lockdown, the 31-year-old finally looks to have found his calling.
After years of searching for an elite striker, culminating in the disastrous £45 million ($62m) purchase of Sebastian Haller, it is with some irony that a sort-of-right-back bought for £8.5m ($11.7m) should emerge as a centre-forward perfectly befitting West Ham’s ambition and tactical style under David Moyes.
But Antonio is now right up there with the best in the Premier League, an all-round striker equally adept at playing with his back to goal, running the channels, creating for others, or poaching goals in the penalty area.
His brilliant start to the season – scoring three goals and assisting two to lift West Ham to the summit – has put Antonio in the spotlight like never before.
It would be unwise to bet against him once again defying expectations and staying in it.
The ideal counterattacking No.9
Moyes likes to play a counterattacking game in which his team sit in a relatively cautious and non-pressing midblock before quickly breaking forward, either with longer passes into the front three or in the dribble.
Antonio’s main benefit to a manager like Moyes used to be his ability to run the channels, getting West Ham up the pitch by chasing long balls and muscling players in the air.
But, more recently, greater nuance has developed as Antonio learns how to play on the ground with his back to goal.
“I hated it at first. When you're playing and you've got your back to play, they come through the back of you,” Antonio told Sky Sports about his conversion.
“The majority of the time having first touches, when the ball comes to you, you're normally free so you've got time to control, but as a centre forward, you've got to be able to ride it.
"You've got to tense your body, but then have your foot be soft enough to control the ball, as well.”
This is now arguably his best quality.Getty/Goal
Against both Newcastle United and Leicester City Antonio was superb under pressure, providing a constant outlet for his team-mates either by holding off the defender and playing a clever one-touch pass out wide, being the wall pass for Declan Rice as he strode forward on the counter, or – most impressively of all – making up the yards himself.
Antonio has a very rare capacity for turning a hospital pass into a counterattack, muscling and wriggling clear of touch-tight defenders to turn 180 degrees and burst forward in the dribble.
It is a skill that combines all the qualities of a winger, striker, and full-back; it is the product of Antonio’s varied career and round-about way of becoming a top forward.
Consequently, West Ham always have an out-ball when looking to counter, either with a longer pass down the channels or – more often these days – by looking for Antonio as he comes short like a false nine.
His sheer strength in possession means, more often than not, a harmless situation turns into a dangerous one as Antonio opens up the pitch and sets the team’s forwards sprinting through the lines on the counter.
Power, pace, and ruthless finishing
Antonio’s first against Leicester was a trademark goal.
Receiving a pass from Rice inside the penalty area there looked to be little on, but Antonio managed to keep the ball close to his body, outmuscle Caglar Soyuncu, and hit a powerful shot into the far corner.
It was the sort of cold, ruthless, and venomous strike we have come to expect from him – and the second such finish we’ve seen already this season after a thunderbolt against Newcastle.
On that occasion, he shrugged off two Newcastle challenges within his own half before using his incredible speed to race ahead of the rest of Steve Bruce’s players and receive a through ball.
His second goal last weekend was equally out of nothing, that immaculate first touch and controlled finish bamboozling Daniel Amartey and Kasper Schmeichel.
In these three goals we saw all the raw power, pace, and dead-eyed finishing that makes Antonio into a truly exceptional striker.
All 49 of his goals have come from inside the area, and indeed among the most distinctive recent developments to his game is his movement to pull away from defenders around the six-yard box.Getty/Goal
His journey to the top of the English game has been unusual and uplifting.
Starting at Tooting & Mitcham United, Antonio has overcome a series of career setbacks and hamstring injuries – and has found himself filling all sorts of positions as successive managers struggle to work out what to do with him.
But now he stands as one of the Premier League's most popular players.
That celebration with the cardboard cut-out on Monday night spoke to his seemingly endless optimism, his joyful – almost childlike – appreciation of being in such a fairy-tale position after so many inauspicious years.
There are easy parallels with Jamie Vardy, and while Antonio is unlikely to win the league title he has the work-rate, intelligence, and skill to emulate Vardy’s goalscoring form well into his thirties.
The best of Antonio may well be yet to come