The Ghanaian international, brought in by Slaven Bilic this summer for a record £20.5 million, is struggling to adapt to life at West Ham and in particular, an unfamiliar new role envisaged by Bilic. Playing more centrally demands that Ayew drops slightly deeper to facilitate Payet and Lanzini playing as number tens, but has looked far from comfortable operating mainly with his back to goal.
Both Payet and Lanzini, who enjoyed stellar debut seasons last year, have struggled to make consistently meaningful contributions so far, and often drift into anonymity for long passages of a game. Their plight has not been helped by the fact that Ayew prefers to play high up the pitch, where his pace and athleticism can threaten in behind, but where he has too often looked isolated and devoid of service this season.
With Carroll’s exact return date still shrouded in uncertainty, Bilic has turned to the ever willing frame of Michael Antonio to provide an alternative attacking dimension that can more directly involve Payet and Lanzini. Much like Carroll, Antonio’s ability to play with his back to goal and trouble centre halves with his aerial ambition, means he creates space for attacking midfielders to spend time on the ball.
Against Tottenham, Bilic opted to play Sakho alongside Ayew in more of a 3-4-3, but neither managed to impact the game and were not helped by a midfield who were missing the suspended Nolan and looked subdued by the power of Dembele and Wanyama. Amongst other things, Bilic will be alarmed by a lack of fluidity in his midfield that refuses to relent. Against a relatively poor Tottenham performance, West Ham looked indecisive and reluctant to take advantage. Despite predictably bright moments from Antonio, neither wing backs were as high and wide as they needed to be, meaning space was limited and possession frantic.
Perhaps no wonder then that a player like Ayew, who enjoyed the brightest spell of his career as a left winger at Marseille, is experiencing such difficulty playing as a lone central striker with very little service. Ideally, given our current deficiencies in midfield, Ayew would start with a player like Antonio or Carroll playing slightly deeper in a 3-5-2. Carroll’s presence would invariably attract the attention of defenders, not only granting Ayew more space but also providing midfielders with a different option.
Anontio, whose utility is as limitless as it is invaluable to West Ham, has demonstrated the value of aerial prowess this season, scoring his sixth headed goal against Tottenham. The threat of Ayew and Sakho however is too similar, both offer very little in the air meaning that when Cresswell and Antonio do look to cross, there is not much to aim for or even attract defenders to.
West Ham’s next league game against United will provide an ideal opportunity to play against a team that have already struggled against a 3-5-2 system this year, albeit against the artistry of Guardiola. Against City, the United back line was pulled apart by the width of Nolito and Sterling, who in turn created the space for De Bruyne and Silva to deal their damage. If Payet and Lanzini are afforded similar amounts of space, they will undoubtedly cause problems, but West Ham will have to move the ball with an intensity and purpose they have so far been unable to muster this season.