[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter a progressive campaign under Slaven Bilić and the promise of a bright immediate future, it is an exciting time to be a West Ham United fan.
For years the Boleyn Ground outfit have been outperformed by London rivals Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, with Hammers’ fans having to make do with inconsistency and fleeting victories.
However, with a move to the Olympic Stadium set to happen this summer and a season that looks destined to culminate in a top-six finish, West Ham have all the right ingredients to become a perennial challenger.
The arrival of Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini have added a level of footballing sophistication not seen at Upton Park since the days of Paulo Di Canio, while Bilić’s technical and tactical acumen has proven a step up from the more industrious days of Sam Allardyce.
However, one area that West Ham look to have really improved in recent times is on the flanks – with the team’s widemen set to play an important role in the side’s continued challenge in the upper echelons of English football.
The Hammers’ attacking threat from wide has specifically been on show when Bilić has switched to a three-man central defence, with the team’s wing backs thriving as a result.
Both Aaron Cresswell on the left and Michail Antonio on the right have consistently looked to venture forward, with quality delivery providing additional menace to the London club’s attack.
Both signed by West Ham from teams competing in the Football League, the duo have improved significantly with the more football they receive in the top flight.
Cresswell joined the Hammers in 2014 from Ipswich and has made the left-back position his own in the last two seasons.
A competent defender with a strong understanding of the game and competent positional sense, it has been on the front foot where the 26-year-old has captured most attention.
Cresswell’s consistent showings this season have had plenty calling on Roy Hodgson to take the full-back to France this summer for Euro 2016, but the Liverpool-born star is unlucky that the Three Lions are blessed with a host of excellent options in this position.
A sublime effort to score against Leicester recently added to the wideman’s burgeoning reputation, while his four assists this term have arguably been more impressive.
On the other flank, Antonio has overcome a slow start to life in London and become an important man for West Ham in recent months.
The sprightly star was a phenomenon in the Championship with Nottingham Forest, scoring and providing goals for the City Ground outfit at will from a winger’s berth.
Fourteen league strikes last term convinced West Ham to bring Antonio back to his native London in the summer, but initially the 26-year-old struggled to make an impression with Bilić’s men.
His first Premier League start did not come until midway through December and was facilitated by injuries to others, but the wideman has taken his opportunity with both hands and been a virtual ever-present in the starting XI since.
Initially fielded in his natural role as a winger, Antonio’s emergence dampened the opportunities of Victor Moses to feature for West Ham.
As Bilić has adjusted his tactics to three central defenders, the former Forest star has thrived in the right wing-back role.
The defensive side to the position is something that will improve in time, but Antonio’s willingness to work hard and commit to the cause have endeared him to the Hammers faithful.
Going forward, Antonio has been a real plus point for Bilić’s side, with some lung-busting runs and six Premier League goals propelling him to one of the club’s most impressive performers since the turn of the year.
Looking at it with the future in mind, Cresswell and Antonio will play a sizeable role in West Ham continuing to be a tough proposition and pushing for a place in the top four.
With Andy Carroll in a purple patch currently and the London club expected to sign a new number nine of note this summer, the wing-backs’ delivery will be a critical part of the Hammers’ attacking play.
Switching to 3-5-2 on a permanent basis would also allow Payet to operate in the number ten role freely and facilitate West Ham to field two strikers in a progressive formation.
Although the talk of new faces and a new stadium may well be central in West Ham fans’ thoughts, keeping their two under-rated wing-backs fit and firing will also be pivotal in the club’s evolution.
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