It’s abundantly clear that West Ham need to sign a striker.
They’ve needed to sign a striker for the best part of 12 months, but as is often the case at the London Stadium, there’s been a rather substantial period of ‘making do’.
Truth be told, not signing one in that period has hardly been a disaster. West Ham completed their primary objective last season of avoiding relegation, and this season, miraculously, they are genuine contenders for European qualification.
Whether or not West Ham can keep up their form until the end of the season remains to be seen, but Sebastien Haller’s sudden departure to Ajax at the beginning of January has further highlighted the need, not desire, for a new striker to come in this summer.
Jesse Lingard’s versatility has somewhat softened the blow of losing Haller, while Jarrod Bowen and Andriy Yarmolenko have both shown they are capable deputies through the middle. But being capable of taking some of the pressure off Michail Antonio won’t cut it in the long run, so it’s no surprise to see a number of strikers being linked with a move to the club.
Boulaye Dia, Adam Armstrong, Eddie Nketiah and Youssef El-Nesyri are among the players who have been, and continue to be, discussed in media circles, but the new name on everybody’s lips is Tammy Abraham of Chelsea.
A scorer of 15 Premier League goals last season under Frank Lampard, it had looked for all the world that Abraham was the chosen one to be Chelsea’s lead striker for years to come.
But a substantial summer investment – to the tune of £220m or so – followed by the axing of Lampard as boss has seen the club veer off in a different direction, and Abraham currently finds himself behind Olivier Giroud and Timo Werner in Thomas Tuchel’s striking pecking order despite netting six Premier League goals this season.
He didn’t even make the matchday squad for the 0-0 draw with Manchester United, having been hooked at half-time in his only two Premier League starts under the German.
Abraham is said to be concerned by what the future may bring, and it’s easy to see why he’s unwilling to discuss a new contract at Chelsea. His current deal at Stamford Bridge has two years to run, and on the surface it would appear that any talks over extending that would purely provide Chelsea with market value protection, rather than any guaranteed game time.
At West Ham, you’d imagine that Abraham would not only want regular game time, he’d want assurances that the club would continue to invest and strive to be regular European contenders under David Moyes – more on that another time.
Abraham’s ability to score goals isn’t in question, but there’s one thing that West Ham supporters know better than most – it’s not always about how many you score, it’s about your all-round contribution and whether or not you’d fit in.
Now, more than ever, West Ham have a style of play and identity under Moyes, who despite being out of contract at the end of the season will surely be offered a new and improved long-term contract.
That style, and it’s one that has served the Hammers so well during 2020/21, has been about structured defensive organisation, and direct, aggressive forward play. Successful when using three, four or five at the back, West Ham have found a way to get the best out of the players they’ve got – but even they would be the first to admit they’re still heavily rely on what Antonio brings to the table.
It begs the question, would Abraham fit in as an alternative option? With a little bit of help from WhoScored and FBRef, some statistical digging has shown that in some respects the 23-year-old’s playing style isn’t actually too dissimilar from the striker West Ham sold, Haller, rather than the all-action Antonio.
Combining the 2019/20 season and 2020/21 campaign to this point (Haller’s numbers only including his time at West Ham, not Ajax), Abraham leads the way in minutes and goals scored. He’s notched up 3,240 minutes of Premier League football, Antonio has 3,022 under his belt after struggling with hamstring niggles, while Haller played 3,198 minutes before departing for Amsterdam.
The Chelsea striker also leads the way on 21 goals, Antonio has 17 and Haller trails both by a considerable margin, having scored only 10.
So what’s the problem?
Nothing when it comes to effectiveness in goal. Abraham has had the most shots out of the trio (119), and also possesses the best shots to goals conversion rate (17.6%). But the devil in the detail shows that it’s the build up play where he differs so much from Antonio.
30-year-old Antonio has averaged 4.5 dribbles per 90 minutes since the beginning of last season, and has covered 4,176 yards with the ball at his feet. 2,528 of those yards have progressed the ball forwards, accounting for 60.5% of the distance he’s covered in possession.
Abraham averages just 1.5 dribbles per 90, the same as Haller, and has travelled just 2,330 yards with the ball at his feet – a shade over 200 yards fewer than the recently departed Ivorian. His progressive distance is marginally better than Ajax’s £20m signing, but he is a good 14% behind Antonio in terms of moving forward with the ball.
It’s that particular facet of Antonio’s game that has brought West Ham so much success. He comes short when necessary, flicks the ball on aerially when required and also runs the channels until his hamstrings are ready to pop. Moreover, he’s the main attacking outlet that relieves the pressure when West Ham are hemmed in – and often begins counter attacks by driving forward with the ball at his feet, something that Abraham evidently isn’t used to doing.
That’s not to say that Abraham isn’t capable of regularly running with the ball, he just hasn’t shown it at Chelsea because of the environment he’s in. With the naked eye, he’s more of an out and out goalscoring striker who relies on his predatory instincts; you only need to look at the numbers from his past loan spells to show his qualities in front of goal.
Antonio doesn’t really work in the same way, his success is more the reward of out and out hard work and endeavour, as well as his continued desire to improve and learn the centre forward’s role.
What Abraham will do, and it’s ironic really because Haller was so often criticised for an apparent laziness, is work hard. He has attempted 582 pressures on an opponent since the beginning of last season, whereas Antonio actually sparingly uses his energy. His numbers stack up to 494, whereas Haller – incredibly – posted 770 pressures during his time at West Ham.
Admittedly, much of that will have come from Haller chasing second balls after competing for the ball in the air. He contested a whopping 561 aerial duels for West Ham – winning 50.8% of them – while Abraham and Antonio barely beat that figure combined, likely because they are far more mobile and able to link up play on the ground.
Of course, these are just statistics and statistics only tell one side of the story. But there is method to any manager’s madness when they pursue a striker, because they absolutely need to match the profile of player you want. Abraham, from a numbers point of view, is more like Haller in a lot of ways, but there’s little evidence to suggest he couldn’t be like Antonio.
If anything, he could be an upgrade on Antonio in many ways – and is certainly someone West Ham should be keeping an eye on in the coming months.