Michail Antonio has scored 5 goals in his past 4 games. If that seems strange to you, that's because it is. This is a guy who scored 8 goals in 26 Premier League matches last season, and his best return came in 2014/15 while in the Championship with Nottingham Forest when he hit 14 goals in 46 appearances. This isn't a guy who has been particularly prolific over the course of his career so far. But Slaven Bilic seems to have found a way to utilize him beautifully in attack and the results over the past few games have been sensational, which is more than you can say for the rest of West Ham United's play.
Let's start with the most obvious statistic about this run Antonio finds himself on, and that is that all 5 of his goals this season have come from headers. Antonio's aerial prowess became evident last season and he has continued to dominate when attacking high balls into the box. Statistically, Antonio contests 7.5 aerial duels per game and wins 4.5 of them for a success rate of 60%. So his strength in the air overall is evident, but his trump card really seems to be his ability to sneak in at the back post off of either flank and get on the end of crosses or long balls into the box. He's scored 3 such goals already this season, and he got 5 of them last year by my count. This is quite an uncommon skill in this modern Premier League, particularly among wide midfielders, so it seems that his being such a rarity has made Antonio a particular handful for Premier League defenses.
Obviously this particular skill is very reliant on the service Antonio receives from the players around him. Fortunately when you have a guy like Dmitri Payet (2nd in total chances created last season, 1st in key passes per game and assists this season) in your team, service usually isn't a huge issue. Surprisingly, despite Antonio's recent streak of goals West Ham don't rank particularly highly in the types of passes that you would expect them to. They're pretty middle-of-the-pack in terms of crosses (20p.g. - 8th in the league) and long balls (70p.g. - 9th in the league). You might think that those numbers are skewed lower because Andy Carroll has been out since game week 1, but their passing numbers from last season are nearly identical to how they have started this season. So it would seem that Antonio is just very efficient, and doesn't need his team to constantly pump high balls into the box in order to get goals.
Efficiency is all well and good, but the opening to this season is a bit anomalous when compared to the rest of Antonio's body of work. So the question, as posed in the title, becomes can he keep it up? Well, for starters let's look at the aerial prowess of West Ham's next opposition to at least come up with a short term answer. Southampton haven't faced a particularly high number of aerial duels to start this season, but they've lost a lot of the ones they've faced. Of the 28.4 per game that they've contested, they have won 12.4 per game and lost 16 per game. I would be willing to bet that they will face a lot more than 28 at the London Stadium this weekend.
As far as Antonio is concerned, however, things might be a bit more challenging depending on the individual matchups he is faced with. Southampton's strongest aerial defender is Virgil van Dijk (winning 67% of his aerial duels this season), who tends to line up on the left side of their center back pairing with Jose Fonte on the right. Fonte is still a good defender in the air, winning 61% of his duels. You can guarantee that one of those two (probably van Dijk) will be handed the job of marking Antonio on set pieces, which reduces some of the threat that he poses. They will also share some responsibility with the fullbacks in tracking him depending on which flank he's attacking. But what about those fullbacks and those late, back post runs?
While their center backs are strong in the air, Southampton's fullbacks aren't. And they are the ones who will be responsible for tracking and defending Antonio in open play for the most part, especially if the Hammers other attackers can successfully occupy the central defenders. Antonio tends to start games on the right hand side of an attacking midfield trio with Payet and Manuel Lanzini, so he'll begin the game up against Ryan Bertrand in all likelihood. In his 2 Premier League games since returning from injury, Bertrand is facing 3.5 aerial duels per game and winning just 1.5 of them (43% success rate). Bertrand's weakness in that area coupled with Antonio's presence may inspire Claude Puel to reinsert Matt Targett, who started the season in Bertrand's place, back into the starting lineup. Targett has been winning his aerial duels 63% of the time and generally presents as a more physically imposing defender.
If Targett does start and is able to keep Antonio relatively in check, expect the big winger to shift to the left (which should be easy given the way Payet and Lanzini like to roam) and go after Cedric Soares. Soares has been winning 45% of his duels and is only having to contest 2.2 per game. If the Hammers direct Antonio down that side, he will test the Portuguese right back a lot more than that. Soares stands at just 5'8" and likes to get up the field. Even with perfect positioning this will be a tough mark for him, but if he's caught a little out of position or a step behind Antonio when a cross comes in, it will be a bloodbath.
On the official game Antonio is priced at £7.3m this week and that still represents a steal if he continues in this vein of form going forward. His ability in the air from open play and set pieces, coupled with his penchant for those lovely back post runs and the service he'll get from Payet, Lanzini and co. means he will probably continue to get goals at a decent clip. Also, though he is yet to register an assist this season, he did get 7 in the previous campaign so I would expect him to get a few before too long. Eventually the rest of the Hammers attack has to get going (Right? RIGHT?!?!?!), especially when Andy Carroll returns, and that bodes well for Antonio in the long run. Strike while the iron's hot, folks. (No pun intended)
Sources: Opta, WhoScored, Premier League Official, My own eyes.