Ninth plays Seventh as West Ham take on Villa

In the season that finished in July, Villa were the visitors on the final day and needed results to go their way to stay in the top flight. As it was, West Ham put in a rather lacklustre performance, having achieved safety with eleven points from their first six games in the month, and were virtually on the beach by the final game of the strangest season we had ever known, a campaign which lasted 50 weeks with no games played from early in March until late June. The game ended 1-1, and the teams could go away for the shortest of close seasons.

Villa came back with all guns firing, and despite their opening fixture against Manchester City being postponed, at one stage early on they led the league picking up maximum points from their opening four games with wins at home to Sheffield United (1-0), and Liverpool (7-2), as well as away wins at Fulham (3-0) and Leicester (1-0). The wins against Liverpool and Leicester were particularly notable and certainly not expected.

With three of their next four games at home they would have hoped to progress further. But they came down with a bump, losing all three, 3-0 to Leeds, 4-3 to Southampton, and 2-1 to Brighton. I watched that game and thought that they were totally outclassed by the Seagulls who deserved their win. Ironically in between those home fixtures, a visit to London saw them collect three points with an emphatic win at Arsenal.

So in their three away games this season they have nine points, having scored seven goals and yet to concede. Food for thought but not particularly surprising in a season that has seen its fair share of surprise results and victories on the road, possibly due to the absence of spectators in grounds. It will be interesting to see if things change when we start to see fans in the stands from next week, albeit just 2000 in ten of the Premier League grounds that are situated in tier 2. Those clubs in tier 3 cannot have any spectators of course, which some are claiming interferes with the integrity of the competition.

Following our splendid 1-0 win at Sheffield United we climbed to eighth place in the table after just nine games, with virtually a quarter of the season completed. It took our run to 14 points from the last seven games, with just one defeat in that time, the narrow 2-1 defeat at Champions Liverpool. After nine games last season we had 12 points, so we are already two points ahead of the same stage last season. But is that a reasonable comparison? It doesn’t take into account the strength of the opposition in games, and perhaps a better comparison is something called Equivalent Fixture Analysis (EFA) where the results are compared to the equivalent matches that were played last season.

It is not possible to do this exactly because three of the teams that we faced last season, Norwich, Watford and Bournemouth were relegated and replaced by Leeds, West Brom and Fulham. We collected 16 points in games against the three teams that went down, so we need to pick up at least five wins and a draw in the fixtures against the three promoted sides to match that. So far so good with the home win against Fulham.

Equivalent Fixture Analysis of our first nine games shows that we have 14 points against 3 in the same games last season (substituting Fulham for one of the relegated sides). That puts us 11 points up, and projecting forwards, if we can just match last season’s equivalent fixtures from now to the end of the season, we would finish on 50 points, which in the last campaign would have been good enough for 12th place after 38 games. Of course, we hope we can do better than that, and at least maintain the eighth position that we have currently reached. Last time, 57 points were needed for an eighth place finish, and just three more (60) for a top six finish and qualification for Europe.

A number of pundits are beginning to tout us for a potential finish in the top half dozen, and whilst that may be premature, it must be the aim to look upwards, rather than over our shoulders. To reach 60 points we may need to better the equivalent fixtures from last season by 21, so effectively we are already halfway there after just nine games. I’ll be analysing this as the season progresses, and for the time being I have looked ahead to the end of December, after which we will have completed 16 fixtures. Ironically in the seven games until the turn of the year this time (Monday’s game followed by six matches in December), we managed 14 points in the equivalent fixtures last season, a similar record to what we have achieved in the last seven games. So we will be hard pressed to make inroads into the 21 that we need to better from last season to reach my hoped for 60. But even if we just match the results that we achieved last time in these seven games, that would put us on 28 points from 16 games, and still well on course for a potential top six finish. A win against Villa would be two more points gained on the equivalent fixture last season, and put us 13 points up after just ten games.

Of course there is still a lot of football to be played in this strange season, and who knows what will happen? We are talking West Ham after all! Nevertheless I can allow myself to dream of a top six finish can’t I?

It will be interesting to see how David Moyes picks the starting eleven for this game. Following his superb strike which must have given him a lot of confidence, Haller would be extremely disappointed to be left out. His performance in each game shows a small improvement, but we are not playing to his strengths with the way we set up. The manager doesn’t seem to believe in changing a team that is winning and performing well, so can we expect the same line up for this game? It’s hard to imagine that the back five will be changed. Diop must be itching to get back in after his Covid isolation, but Balbuena has taken his chance and performed solidly. Along with Cresswell, who was receiving massive criticism just a few weeks ago, they have made it hard for the manager to leave them out. According to the statistics that I have seen, Cresswell has created more chances than any other defender in the Premier League, and the defence (of which he is part of course) are on top of the “clean sheets league”. Ogbonna has been playing better than ever this season too.

In fact everybody is playing well. The whole team realise that we have a strong bench and cannot afford to let their performance slip. Benrahma must be keen to show what he can do, but while we continue to win he will need to bide his time. I wonder if Antonio will play if he is now fully fit? Some are calling for him to play with Haller, not just one or the other. We have been relatively fortunate so far with a lack of injuries compared to how many we normally seem to have, and long may it continue. But no doubt as the season progresses the numbers will mount, and then most of the squad will get the chance to show what they can do.

We are slight favourites to win the game according to the bookmakers, at around 13/10, with Villa at about 2/1. The favourite score is 1-1 at 5/1, no doubt influenced by the closeness of the teams in the league, and the result in the final game of last season. One intriguing bet that I saw and have taken is for West Ham to win the game, Villa to have the most cards, and West Ham to have the most corners. At 9/1 that’ll do me. An entertaining game, a good performance, and three points. That’ll do me too! What are the chances?