Manuel Lanzini’s return to the West Ham United squad gives manager Slaven Bilic welcome selection and tactical headaches.
Bilic has confirmed the Argentina playmaker is back in the matchday squad for Saturday’s Premier League fixture with Swansea City at London Stadium, immediately and markedly increasing the Hammers’ threat.
To give some indication of Lanzini’s importance to West Ham’s play in the middle and final thirds of the pitch, the No10 led his team in virtually every attacking category last season.
Lanzini created more Premier League chances than any other Hammer in 2016/17 with 56, nearly twice as many as second-highest Michail Antonio’s 31. Unsurprisingly, he also played more key passes (54) than any of his teammates.
The skilful South American played more forward passes (877) attempted (1,564) and completed (1,367) more passes than any other midfielder or winger, giving him a team-high 87 per cent pass-completion, and serving as further evidence of his incredible influence.
He also scored, too, netting eight to finish second to Antonio in West Ham’s goalscoring charts last term.
While it is not quantifiable, Lanzini also possesses the invaluable ability to keep the ball in tight situations, using his outstanding technique, impeccable close control and low centre of gravity to wriggle out of trouble and keep his team on the front foot.
So, with the diminutive star now available for selection after recovering from a knee injury, the challenge for Bilic is to work out how to best utilise his unique talents.
Statistically and numerically, Lanzini’s best position is as a No10, playing in the space behind the centre forwards and between the opposition’s defence and midfield.
But, in recent weeks, Bilic has opted to use a 3-4-3 formation, with two central midfielders sitting slightly deeper and the attacking work being done by a centre forward – either Andy Carroll or Chicharito – and two wide forwards – Antonio, Chicharito, Andre Ayew or Marko Arnautovic.
All four wide forwards mentioned are versatile and could adapt to a change in system, and the Croatian may be tempted to revert to the 4-2-3-1 shape he used 12 times last season to accommodate Lanzini in his preferred position.
Alternatively, he may choose to stick with the three-man defence that has helped shore up the back line, meaning Lanzini would most likely be deployed as one of two attacking midfielders in a 3-4-2-1 formation.
Antonio, who is himself in line to feature after recovering from the minor groin problem he suffered last weekend, and Arnautovic both impressed against Tottenham Hotspur and will be disappointed not to be selected from the start.
The same can be said for Chicharito, who scored against Spurs, Ayew, who netted in the home win over Huddersfield Town, and Carroll, who has netted five goals in six appearances against Swansea in Claret and Blue.
With captain Noble and Kouyate also available, whichever formation he opts for, Bilic has eight senior players vying for five or six places in his team, including the most creative member of his squad, Manuel Lanzini.