England’s greatest ever manager is ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce, statistically speaking. The late summer of 2016 saw Big Sam’s only victory as England manager. A last-gasp Adam Lallana goal stole a 1-0 win over 10-man Slovakia. However, he was soon unceremoniously axed due to a Daily Telegraph sting operation. The newspaper was investigating corruption in football and exposed insider knowledge reaching the highest echelons of the game. Yet, he was leaving with a 100% winning record.
Despite ultimately not playing, West Ham’s Michail Antonio was a curious inclusion in Allardyce’s national team setup. When announcing his squad, the coach argued that Antonio “scored nine goals in his first season and he’s a terrific athlete, a good crosser and a goal-scorer.” In this article, I will analyse Allardyce’s assertions by cross-referencing them with statistics on Antonio’s 2015/16 and 2018/19 seasons.
According to transfermarkt.co.uk, Antonio’s breakthrough 2015/16 season saw him make 32 appearances for West Ham in both the Premier League and the FA Cup. He scored nine goals. Notably, prior to his transfer to the top flight, he had scored four goals in his five games for Nottingham Forest. This brought his season total to 14 goals in 37 games.
This season Antonio has not been as prolific, despite being played eight times as a centre forward. So far he has only managed to find the net four times from his 31 games. Perhaps confirming his inadequacies in front of goal under Manuel Pellegrini, his strikes have largely been against weaker opposition. Whilst he scored to dent Liverpool’s title hopes in February, this has proven to be the exception to the rule. His other goals came in both fixtures against Fulham, as well as when facing Cardiff at the London Stadium. This doesn’t indicate the characteristics of a trusted goal scorer.
Delving deeper into the statistics however, we can see that Antonio has not been doing too much wrong with the opportunities he’s had. Using xG data from understat.com, we can better analyse Antonio’s ability in front of goal in the Premier League. Antonio’s xG goal difference in 2015/16 was fantastic, registering a very impressive -2.10. This indicates that the striker was very efficient in front of goal, statistically scoring two goals more than should have been expected.
This season Antonio has also been more effective when presented with a scoring chance, but only just. He currently sits on an xG difference of -0.04. This indicates that his finishing has been pretty much as good as could be anticipated. Clearly then, Antonio has not been as effective as he was in 2015/16 but unfortunately, this hasn’t been all down to him. Whilst his clinical finishing has depreciated somewhat, he has also not received the same quantity of opportunities from his teammates.
“A good crosser”
Eyeing up Antonio for a spot on the right of the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 formation he used against Slovakia, Allardyce praised his crossing ability. As mentioned, Antonio played a total of 37 games in the 2015/16 season (including his five for Nottingham Forest prior to his transfer). Antonio assisted his West Ham teammates five times and helped a Forest colleague once. This season Antonio has also provided five assists. Understat.com rates his xA per 90 minutes (p90) as having increased from 0.12 in 2015/16 to 0.20 this season. Antonio is, on average, providing better opportunities for his teammates than previously.
On paper, Antonio has simply set up more goals this season for his fellow Hammers. However, Antonio’s assist record has actually increased in spite of his teammates in 2018/19. Whilst he has proportionally contributed more assists than previously, his xA difference stands at +0.51. This shows that from Antonio’s plays, West Ham should have scored an extra 0.51 goals. Even though football doesn’t operate in half goals, games can so often be decided by half chances. Antonio’s efforts should have rewarded West Ham with an extra goal this season.
The question of assists is tricky to analyse, as it obviously relies on an external character to score. West Ham’s strikers have been wasteful this season. The whole squad currently rests on an average xG of +1.66 from open play. In extreme contrast, Antonio’s debut season saw a brilliant -6.91, as Slaven Bilić inspired his side to a seventh-place finish. Despite this, Antonio’s reputation as a chance-providing, wide attacker has been maintained. All of his assists this season have arisen whilst playing as a right-sided midfielder or on the right wing. This is largely consistent with his 2015/16 record.
Ignoring England’s first UEFA Nations League game, a 2-1 loss to Spain, Gareth Southgate has consistently played a fluid 4-3-3 formation. A rather rigid midfield three allow for overlapping wing-backs and intensive movement within the front line. If deployed on the right wing, Antonio’s flair could interact well with England captain Harry Kane. Kane has scored an impressive 24 goals in 36 games this season for Tottenham Hotspur.
Getting in through the ‘back’ door
This season Antonio has played in six different positions, one more than in the season which earned him his call-up. Under Pellegrini, Antonio has been regularly used as a centre forward. It seems unlikely that he will be featured here for England, however. Harry Kane’s scoring record and importance as captain make it unlikely that he’ll be dislodged. Likewise, Raheem Sterling’s 19 goals and 16 assists in 39 games make him indispensable on the right-wing. Unfortunately, Antonio’s form doesn’t compare.
This doesn’t mean the end for Antonio’s England career, however. After all, he is incredibly versatile. His explosive pace and sturdy physique have often seen him utilised as a marauding wing-back in Pellegrini’s side this season. His defensive stats add credence to giving him the chance to play on the right side of Southgate’s defence. Similar to Pellegrini, the England manager is keen to use overlapping wing backs. Throughout his tenure, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier have been his usual candidates for selection.
We can toggle individual statistics by position on whoscored.com. Of the trio, despite what has been described as a poor season, Trippier has the highest number of tackles won p90, with 2.2. Walker and Antonio are equal with 1.3. However, Antonio’s defensive positioning, counter-attacking intent and athleticism ensure that he has plenty else to offer. He holds a higher number of interceptions, with 1.7 p90 compared to Walker’s 1.2 and Trippier’s 1.0.
Despite conceding more losses of possession and making fewer passes, Antonio would also add something extra to attack. Even when in this deeper role, Antonio leads the way in terms of dribbling forward from the back. Antonio’s gung-ho vigour has inspired 4.3 successful dribbles p90. Compare this to Walker’s 0.6 and Trippier’s lowly 0.2. He also has a higher number of key passes than Walker, with his 0.7 p90 trumping the latter’s 0.5. Nonetheless, Trippier leads the way with 2.0. There is a great disparity between all of these statistics. Clearly, in terms of transitioning from defending to attacking the wings, England now has a multitude of options.
The most likely way into the England squad could be through promoting his hidden qualities as a potential right wing-back. Obviously, there is plenty of competition in this position already. Furthermore, with both Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Trent Alexander-Arnold having brilliant individual seasons, some players will be crowded out. All the same, Antonio’s positional universality still makes him highly valued.
Antonio has had a decent season. Yet, perhaps his qualities are masqueraded somewhat by the steep inclines and declines that have marked West Ham’s campaign. Considering the two explanations which Allardyce gave for Antonio’s inclusion in the England squad in 2016, his goal-scoring and his chance creation, Antonio has fared OK. However, within the context of the current England side, Antonio would struggle to feature in more advanced positions. On the other hand, if Gareth Southgate was to take advantage of Antonio’s attributes, he could develop a revolutionary wing-back. Even if not a first choice, tournament sides should never look past such an assured utility player.