Losing a player as fundamental as Declan Rice can never be a good thing. Unless your name is Tomás Soucek.
You get the sense that if it weren’t for the large plaster stuck in the middle of Tomás Soucek’s forehead that David Moyes would’ve kissed his Czech midfielder after he bailed him out yet again at the weekend.
Soucek stole round the back post to volley home a 91st-minute winner for West Ham against Burnley, replicating the rescue act he’d performed against Nottingham Forest in the Hammers’ prior Premier League game. On that occasion, Soucek rose highest in the box to head home an 88th-minute winner. Those last-gasp clinchers helped Moyes’ team halt a run of four matches without a win, including three consecutive defeats, and saw them register back-to-back league victories for the first time since August.
Soucek is not known for being especially prolific, but he’s currently on a four-game goalscoring streak, netting in his last two Premier League games as well as grabbing two goals to help Czechia qualify for Euro 2024 over the international break.
They’ve been vital goals, too, with his strikes this league campaign winning five points for West Ham in the Premier League. Only four players (Son Heung-Min’s seven and Evan Ferguson, Erling Haaland and Bruno Fernandes all winning six) have earned more points for their teams with their goals.
Soucek has a history of coming up clutch. Since he joined the club, West Ham have won six league games with match-winners scored after the 85th-minute – four of them have been scored by the big Czech.
He now has six goals in all competitions for West Ham this term, already double the total he managed last campaign in 32 fewer matches, while he’s on course to eclipse the best-scoring season of his Hammers career (10 goals in his first full campaign at the club in 2020-21).
His increased goalscoring is at least partly a result of being freed from the shackles of playing next to Declan Rice, who’s transition into a box-to-box midfielder required Soucek to sacrifice the offensive side of his game.
Across the last two seasons, Soucek played 68% of his total league minutes as a defensive midfielder in a double pivot, typically next to Rice.
This season, particularly with the introduction of Rice-replacement Edson Álvarez at the base of midfield, Soucek has shifted much further forward. Almost half of his minutes this campaign have come as a central attacking midfielder in a three behind the lone striker.
With Álvarez and James Ward-Prowse anchoring the midfield behind him, Soucek can leave the progressive passing to that pair and focus on affecting the game from further upfield.
Starting further up the pitch has enabled Soucek to get into attacking positions far more frequently than last season, where he returned just three goals in 50 games in all competitions. His attacking numbers are way up across the board, while on a per-90 basis he’s averaging more touches in the opposition’s box (3.2), more expected goals (0.33) and more shots (2.1) than he’s ever done in a West Ham shirt.
Comparing his open-play touch map to that of last season illustrates just how often the midfielder is getting on the ball in central, high-value attacking areas, particularly in the opposition’s box.
There have been times this season when Soucek’s been the furthest West Ham player forward, occupying one of the opposition’s centre-backs while the team’s nominal striker (Michail Antonio or more recently Jarrod Bowen) moves out wide.
And starting from a more advanced position means Soucek can make his trademark late runs into the box, an element of his game that was so evident when he first arrived in east London.
Deployed further forward plays to Soucek’s strengths. He’s not the most fluent passer and often struggled when asked to build play up from deep for West Ham last season. His 71.8% pass competition rate in open play was the second worst of all defensive and central midfielders to play at least 500 minutes last year – only Morgan Gibbs-White (70.3%) had a lower rate, but that is partly due to the fact the Nottingham Forest man is such a prolific crosser of the ball.
Instead, Soucek can now look to dominate in the penalty area. He’s made 64 off-ball runs into the opposition’s box this season, ranking him fifth out of all central midfielders behind only Fernandes, Sean Longstaff, Julián Álvarez and Conor Gallagher, all of whom play for possession-dominant sides. His 6-foot-4 frame makes him a real aerial threat in the area – he’s attempted 12 headed shots this campaign, at least four more than any other midfielder, while his average of 2.0 shots per game inside the box is the highest he’s ever had in a Hammers shirt.
There are elements to the way Moyes has deployed Soucek that are reminiscent of the way he used Marouane Fellaini, particularly at Everton. The Scot often played Fellaini in a role behind a central striker, a different option from the Belgian’s traditional position in a more defensive role, but one where he could use his physicality to great effect in the opposition box.
Soucek is a safety blanket in West Ham’s box too and is extremely effective at dealing with opposition set pieces. Of all midfielders, only teammate Álvarez (32) has made more clearances than his 31, while no midfielder can eclipse his 19 headed clearances.
Soucek has long been a Moyes favourite. Since his debut in February 2020, Soucek has started more games (127) and played more minutes (11,241) than any West Ham player. In fact, since his first game in the competition, only five outfielders have played more minutes than him while just three (Longstaff, Bernardo Silva, and Pablo Fornals) have covered more ground per 90 minutes than Soucek’s 11.9km average.
Soucek has rediscovered his goalscoring form at a perfect moment for Moyes, particularly with Antonio and Bowen suffering injuries. Losing Rice was obviously a massive, if inevitable, blow for West Ham over the summer, but Soucek’s fine form looks to be one of the few positive byproducts of that transfer.
You can always rely on Soucek for his durability and warrior-like presence around the pitch, but now his added threat in front of goal is what’s making him a real handful for opposition defences.