Enner Valencia has had few sceptics up to this point but I’ve been cynical of his worth ever since he missed the penalty which sent us out of the League Cup against Sheffield United.
The Ecuadorian international was also guilty of missing a number of opportunities from open-play that evening whilst fellow new recruit Diafra Sakho, signed for a fraction of the price, was the more impressive and managed to score the first of what was to become many.
Things have continued in similar fashion. Sakho has obviously been an absolute revelation. It seemed like the club even pre-empted him to become a Modibo Maiga-esq flop when they tried to pull the plug in favour of Connor Wickham, but thank God FC Metz forced through the sale.
Sakho slides effortlessly into any system, whether it be with the big man Andy Carroll, as a lone striker or with Valencia. His direct running and fearsome finishing is unlike any forward seen at Upton Park in the past decade – it’s great to see David Sullivan already ironing out a new deal for him.
However, the Senegalese striker’s success and that of the team overall has hidden a number of flaws in Valencia’s game. Firstly, his hold-up play has been particularly poor – Valencia can be rapid if he is slid behind the defence but if Sakho isn’t there to catch up, he rarely retains the ball while back-up surges forward.
His game is also heavily reliant on confidence and this seems to affect much of his decision-making. After that goal at Hull, which was great admittedly, the South American seemed to take a shot every time he got within 40 yards of the goal for the next few games. A player that backs his ability is something we have missed for some time, but Valencia’s frequent inability to look up was worrying.
Many of these imperfections were painfully illuminated against Swansea when Sam Allardyce rightly replaced him with Sakho half way through. The difference in class was visible as the African’s clever runs gave him three clear goal-scoring opportunities, one of which he converted whilst the other two hit the post.
As Allardyce has duly warned, January will be a telling time for the Hammers. With Sakho off on international duty in Equatorial Guinea along with the absolutely imperial Alex Song and his fellow central-midfield powerhouse Cheikhou Kouyate, it would be surprising if performances didn’t dwindle.
With this trio gone, the forward nicknamed ‘Superman’ will have nowhere to hide. Much of the pressure will drop onto his shoulders to maintain our form and time will tell – with him being such an emotional player – whether he will thrive with the responsibility or become a frustrating figure at the Boleyn.
Valencia is evidently technically gifted – the Hull strike, Burnley header and assist for Morgan Amalfitano against Manchester City are evidence of this – but these magic moments all came via instinct. To cut it at the top level in the Premier League, a forward needs to be intelligent enough to outwit his opposing defenders.
When the shadow of Sakho, which has protected Valencia until now, fades away in the New Year, there’s a substantial chance that ‘Superman’s knack of saving the day might not follow the script.
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