West Ham United have a history of, and their fanbase has always readily embraced, maverick and mercurial attacking talents who may not possess the ability to crunch into a tackle but can delight and bedazzle a crowd with a unique moment of skill.
Alan Devonshire, Trevor Morley, Frank McAvennie, Paolo Di Canio and more recently Dimitri Payet were all beloved by the Hammers’ support for their unique ability on the ball, excusing any occasional defensive lapses off it or consistency in performance. That was the nature of the beast.
There were the archetypal players “you’d pay to watch” as they were capable of enlivening the dullest of matches, ensuring lasting memories and, ultimately, what is football from a fan’s perspective if not to serve as a means of entertainment and escapism?
Since Payet left in January 2017 to return to France with Marseille, West Ham have largely been a team of the functional rather than the flamboyant, bereft of genuine fantasy football. Marco Arnautović’s late impact last season was a pleasing spectacle but the Austrian can’t truly consider himself part of the aforementioned pantheon.
The vast summer investment made in the wake of Manuel Pellegrini’s hire as manager, however, has culminated in West Ham being left with not one but two players of such irrepressible ilk: Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko.
But while most sides can only accommodate one playmaker, Pellegrini is actually in the unique position of being able to start both; firstly, because they operate best on each flank and secondly, because they are two very different wingers.
Not just in appearance – Anderson’s short afro against the course, more military-issue haircut of Yarmolenko – but in how they play the game.
Anderson’s time at Lazio was plagued by disagreements between coaches over his best position. He was shunted from the left to the right, or moved deeper, while Edy Reja and Filippo Inzaghi tried to mould the Brazilian into a central No.10.
That alone gives an insight into his vast skillset, because Anderson can beat defenders one-v-one or he operate as a passing playmaker, just in a wide position, which offers its own individual problems for defences.
Wingers, in the traditional sense, have always been quick and tend to play on the outside, with their MO being to beat a defender and swing a cross or drill a pull-back into the penalty area, the “chalk on the boots” concept.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo helped change that, so did the advent of attacking full-backs becoming a necessary option for teams. And now with wide defenders having to be as good offensively as they are defensively, so too wingers have had to adapt and develop.
Yarmolenko is similar to Anderson in the sense he has also played as a No.10, but, as the performance at Everton showed, he’s best when given room to breathe out wide and then permitted to attack the space inside and in front of him.
If Anderson is the scenic route, then Yarmolenko has the satnav out negotiating the quickest and most efficient path to his destination.
It’s a crude distinction, perhaps, but the beauty of it is by having two different types of winger – with each one capable of playing right and left – it offers Pellegrini a certain degree of flexibility in selection.
With Anderson in the side there isn’t so much pressure to have a central playmaker, so beloved by the Chilean in the past with David Silva, Isco and Juan Román Riquelme. That, in turn, allows either an extra body to play up front or, as Pellegrini did at Goodison Park, have more legs in midfield.
Likewise, with Yarmolenko’s acceleration and ability to join attack, the need for a secondary striker isn’t so prevalent. The Ukraine international’s starting position may be towards the touchline but, in possession, sooner or later he’s going to be on the shoulder of Arnautović.
Although Yarmolenko’s involvement has been limited to just 81 minutes, whereas Anderson has played 422, statistically there are notable difference highlighting their varies attributes.
To emphasise Anderson’s playmaking, he averages 0.42 through-balls per 90 minutes (sixth among Premier League attackers), 1.49 open-play key passes, 0.24 xA (expected goals assisted) and 2.13 successful take-ons. Yarmolenko’s numbers are, respectively, zero, 0.95, 0.09 and 0.47 – all fewer than the Brazilian.
The former Dynamo Kyiv forward, however, has produced 1.43 scoring attempts per 90 and 3.35 touches in the opposition penalty area plus has an xG (expected goals) per 90 of 0.38 compared with Anderson’s 0.85, 2.55 and 0.04.
One is a creator, the other a finisher, yet both essentially play the same position for West Ham.
And while that is of considerable benefit for Pellegrini, providing he delivers enough protection behind them (although, as a side point, Anderson’s 3.19 tackles per 90 is deeply impressive and the second-highest in the league by an attacking player), it also empowers the players themselves.
Should Arnautovic be Pellegrini’s nominated striker he’ll invariably draw in most of the defensive attention, often limiting Anderson’s passing avenues in the final third.
With Yarmolenko pulling off the other flank and arriving into the penalty area, theoretically with a greater degree of space, it gives the Brazilian a consistent target.
Likewise, having a playmaker such as Anderson instils a confidence and knowledge within Yarmolenko that if he does cut inside and make his way into the penalty area, the ball will arrive.
They may start further away on the field than any of their other team-mates (with the exception of Arnautović and goalkeeper Łukasz Fabiański), but the more Yarmolenko and Anderson play together, and the greater their understanding of each other’s game grows, the closer they will get to becoming West Ham’s most potent attacking partnership.