Premier League

Hammers’ Forgotten Man Needs Platform To Shine

 • by Graham Ruthven
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Several people made it on to the London Stadium pitch from the stands during West Ham United’s home defeat to Burnley on Saturday. Jordan Hugill didn’t, however. 

But the striker witnessed first hand the pitch invasions and fan protests that came to mark one of the darkest days in the club’s history.

In fact, by extension, Hugill could be put forward as a manifestation of the unrest that has taken hold of the Irons fanbase this season. One of the biggest complaints the club’s support have against the hierarchy is about their lack of investment in the first-team squad, and more that the players they do sign don’t fit in to any holistic, overarching strategy.

Hugill joined on deadline day in January from Preston North End for a reported £10million. It was a transfer that didn’t make a lot of sense to many. 

David Moyes, however, made the case for the striker’s arrival. “Jordan Hugill will give us a bit of presence up front, which we need, and big energy and honesty,” he said when the frontman arrived.

“I think Jordan is ready. I think he could play and he won’t let us down in terms of his effort and commitment. I think it will take him time to get used to his new surroundings, but hopefully he can help us in a period when we’re a bit short of strikers.”

But despite the Hammers struggling for goals in recent weeks, Moyes still hasn’t turned to Hugill, who has played a total of 12 minutes for the club.

Against Burnley on Saturday, the Scot fielded Marko Arnautović up front and only introduced Javier Hernández later in the game. So why hasn’t Hugill been given a chance to make an impression for his new club? Is Moyes holding him back?

Stylistically Hugill isn’t the most natural of fits for West Ham. He is an orthodox target man, as he showed at his former club before the move to the London Stadium. At Preston Hugill excelled as the focal point of their attack.

He won more aerial duels than any other Lilywhites player (5.7 per game), which made him one of the most effective target men in the Championship this season.

But West Ham aren’t a team that, at present, has use for such a centre forward. 

The Hammers do hit long passes; their average of 70 per game is the seventh-highest in the Premier League while their average of 308 short passes per game is the fourth lowest.

However, they aren’t a stereotypical hit-it-long side. Mark Noble’s modest average of 3.7 long balls per match is the highest of any Irons player, while Arnautović‘s and Hernández‘s averages of 0.6 and 0.5 attacking aerial challenges per game prove West Ham are constantly looking to play off a target man.

While the Irons might bypass midfield frequently, they are doing so with passes into the channels rather than looking for a striker to win flick ons or to hold the ball up.

What’s more, Andy Carroll is a similar sort of striker to Hugill, yet West Ham‘s results haven’t improved (with the exception of a shock win over Spurs) when the England international has played.

By making Arnautović the focal point of his frontline against Burnley, Moyes demonstrated the way he wants his side to play. The Austrian is a mobile and tricky forward – although strictly speaking he isn’t a forward at all as at Stoke he was used on the wing or in behind the central striker.

In Hernández, meanwhile, West Ham have one of the best penalty box operators in the Premier League. The Mexican can often be typecast as a poacher who never leaves the six-yard area, but it’s his movement in front of goal that has made him so dangerous, and effective, over the course of his career.

It would appear Hugill was signed to act as the target man for either to play off. A point to hit with a long ball forward. An option.

But in what scenario would Moyes switch to such a game plan? If the Scot isn’t prepared to change tact in times of trouble, as West Ham are undoubtedly now in, when will he be prepared? And does Hugill have a use up until then?

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Perhaps the 25-year-old would be best deployed as part of a front two. Arnautović and Hernández would make suitable strike partners for Hugill, who could make the most of the Englishman’s strength in the air. This is how Moyes used him for ten minutes of the away defeat to Brighton last month, with the Mexican and Englishman played as an orthodox striking pair.

Part of the problem is that Moyes lacks the necessary wide players to make a 4-4-2 system work. Michail Antonio and Joao Mário are two of the Hammers’ best performers but they are not perfectly suited to this system.

Moyes could consider a 4-3-1-2 shape, accommodating Arnautović, Hernández and Hugill in the same side, but this could leave his team light in the centre of the pitch, something he has shown he isn’t willing to do. 

However, something has to change at West Ham, otherwise they are heading for the Championship.

This is a club in turmoil, but somehow Moyes must concentrate on on-the-field matters and find a better way to use his squad between now and the end of the campaign.

One of those ways might include Hugill, who has very quickly become the forgotten man at the club.

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