It’s that time of year again. After all the doom and gloom of the last couple of months, on and off the pitch, last weekend’s performance and result against Southampton helped us recapture some much-needed positivity and allowed us to feel good about West Ham again, for this week at the very least.
With that in mind, it’s about time we had a look at the main contenders for the Hammer of the Year award. With a poor season for the club reaching its conclusion, candidates are hardly queuing up for the prize. But it will still be an interesting battle, as three players have emerged above the rest and the decision is far from clear cut.
One thing is certain: we will have a first-time winner this year. There are four players in the current squad to have already won – Winston Reid, Aaron Cresswell, Michail Antonio and Mark Noble (twice) – none of whom has played as consistently well as one of these three main candidates:
The case: The Austrian forward has been a revelation for us almost ever since David Moyes joined the club. His nine league goals are the most of any West Ham player this season, and he is one away from being the first Hammer to score 10 in a league season since Diafra Sakho three years ago – not bad for a player who only started turning up in December.
Stats aside, he has produced some inspiring performances in games. Watford, Southampton, Huddersfield and Stoke were completely incapable of coping with him, while he’s added important goals against Chelsea and Bournemouth. His strength, pace and quick feet adds a different dimension to our attack and the way he can carry the ball forward takes the pressure off our defence in a way no other player has offered us this season. In the games where we’ve played well, he’s been by far our best player.
To boot, Arnautovic is a fan-favourite, showing passion for the game and making a connection with supporters.
What’s holding him back: Arnautovic was our record signing in the summer, so to say that he didn’t score a goal, and didn’t even play in a game West Ham won, until December, shows that his first few months of the season were disappointing. Arnautovic looked unfit, disinterested and largely incapable of making a defining impact on a game - unless you count elbowing someone and getting sent off after half an hour, like he did in just his second game for us against Southampton. Our poor start has created this mess of a season, and Arnautovic was nowhere to be seen.
Best game: There are one or two examples to choose from. But Huddersfield away stands out above the others. In a game in which West Ham had just 35% possession, the tandem of Arnautovic and Manuel Lanzini tore the home side apart at practically every opportunity. The Austrian scored at the start of the second half with a rasping shot before laying on two goals for Lanzini as West Ham won 4-1. It hinted at the sort of next-level quality we have been promised, and made Huddersfield look like amateurs.
Defining moment: It should probably be one of the two occasions this season where he left former boss Mark Hughes with egg on his face. But seven minutes into the game against Chelsea – perhaps our most hated opponent of all – Arnie scored a goal of the highest quality, playing a one-two with Lanzini, shifting the ball away from a tight defence and planting a shot into the bottom corner, showing West Ham fans for the first time why we invested so much money in him.
The case: A poor recent month and a half aside, there’s no denying our defence has improved a lot under David Moyes. Ogbonna has featured in all but one league game since Moyes arrived, the only one he missed being the 4-1 defeat at Swansea. In the centre of the back-three, Ogbonna has put in a string of assured performances and has been by far our best player on the defensive end. His performances have even earned him a recall to the Italy squad.
Ogbonna has played an excellent covering role in the centre, and his positional play has been particularly good. With the ball in the middle, he has been right there to clear. When the ball goes wide and his partner gets dragged out, he has been the one at the near post to stop the cross. He has been the absolute heart of a defence, which, in a few weeks in December, conceded just three against Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham.
The stats back up his performances. His 155 clearances in the league are the most of any West Ham player by a distance (James Collins is next with 118), and even that’s with the Italian not having played in seven of the Hammers’ 32 league games to date. As Moyes restored stability to the back line, Ogbonna is its centrepiece.
What’s holding him back: The Hammers had a notoriously leaky defence under Slaven Bilic and not even Moyes has been able to completely solve the problem. Ogbonna even began the season out of favour and started just three of our first nine in the league – we conceded three goals in each of those. Like Arnautovic, Ogbonna only became a top performer this season after we hired a new manager, by which time 29% of the season had already been played and we had squandered an easy set of fixtures.
Best game: It was backs against the wall for most of our visit to Wembley in December. But Spurs’ talented attack could find no way past Ogbonna all game, except for a 30-yard screamer. In the 1-1 draw at Tottenham, Ogbonna made three blocks and ten clearances in an imperious display to earn us a point.
Defining moment: A lot of Ogbonna’s work goes unnoticed in the highlight reels, but no West Ham fan will quickly forget his winning goal in the League Cup at Tottenham in October.
The case: West Ham have been all-too used to taking other clubs’ over-the-hill deadwood in recent years. But any scepticism over the signing of Pablo Zabaleta from Man City this summer quickly subsided, and the Argentine quickly became a fan favourite with his commitment on the pitch. His reading of the game is excellent, perhaps a level above any other player we have, and when the game is played in front of him he is probably our best defender. He has had some tough tasks in an often-exposed back-line, but has emerged from some key battles with credit, memorably shutting down City’s left-wing along with Declan Rice on his return to the Etihad in December.
On the attacking end, he has shown there’s still plenty left in him and contributes regularly to West Ham’s attacking moves, and Zab has even filled in in midfield, earning plaudits for a very good performance against Crystal Palace.
His 87 tackles are the most of any defender in the Premier League this season, which has shown the Argentine has had plenty to do, and has done so with credit. Of the three main candidates, Zabaleta is probably the most consistent performer if you look at the entire season.
What’s holding him back: Despite this, Zabaleta’s own form has been up-and-down during the course of the season. Some weeks he looks excellent, but on other occasions he gets absolutely roasted down that right flank and a lot of goals this season have come from those areas, especially in our heavy defeats. On matches where he was paired with Collins on the right side of defence, fast, agile attackers have had a field day at times. The Argentine has endured nightmares against Marcus Rashford, Andrew Robertson and Ryan Fraser to name a few.
Best game: As with Arnautovic and Ogbonna, there are several to choose. But my favourite Zabaleta game was the 2-0 win over Watford in February. In one of the team’s best performances this season, Zab played like a man possessed. He had Watford’s dangerous Richarlison in his back pocket all game, giving him not an inch of room. He also stretched the play with several attacking runs as Watford never looked close to scoring.
Defining moment: Zabaleta endeared himself to the West Ham faithful with a passionate and committed display against Swansea in September, and this reaction to Sakho’s late goal shows how much he still cares about playing and winning.
Personally, I would choose Ogbonna if the awards were today.
I still haven’t made my mind up and would probably be fine with any of the three winning. But I can’t get over the fact that, while I love Zabaleta – I’m delighted for him that he’s proven he can still excel at this level, and that his passion and effort have quickly made him a fan-favourite – I can’t get over the fact that when he’s having a bad game he really stinks.
On the other hand, Arnautovic and Ogbonna may not have played as well throughout the season, but from November onwards they have been absolutely superb, and on a consistent basis too. Without either of them we would almost certainly be looking at relegation. Ogbonna has it over Arnautovic for me because our poor season hinges on that bad start. Our £25 million forward didn’t score until December and underperformed massively at a time when we would expect our record signing to help us more. While we took a dip as a whole team in February and March, Ogbonna’s consistent quality at the back has been a key factor in our improvement.
Are there any other candidates? Rice has emerged as a huge prospect and has matured quickly, and often looks like the best player on the pitch. Collins refuses to be forgotten. Lanzini perhaps has the best ability in the squad but his injuries have perhaps hindered him from taking the next step as a footballer. There’s also no denying that when we play well, Noble is playing well.
Alright then, West Ham fans. Who’s your Hammer of the Year?